Where did Spanish fly get its name, and where did it come from?

Dear Matthew Alice:

I would like to know how Spanish fly got its name and where it came from. Does Spanish fly work, or is it just one of those things everyone says works but never tried? Are there any bad effects with it?

-- M.B., in high school somewhere in San Diego

Glad to see that some great high school traditions are timeless, even if it seems a bit quaint here at the dawning of the Age of Viagra. The Spanish fly rumor is one of those stories that just won't die. But the stuff does exist. It's also called cantharides and is a powder made from the ground-up bodies of a particular kind of blister beetle (Lytta vesicatoria) that's native to Spain and southern Europe. The powder is then sold to the desperate and susceptible as an edible aphrodisiac.

Does Spanish fly work? Weeeeell, naw, not really. When you eat the ground-up blister beetle, then you pee, the chemical in the bug irritates your urethra and draws blood into the area. (It's actually been fed to male livestock to give them a little boost in the love department.) Unfortunately, humans are way more reactive to cantharides than bovines are. Before too long, any tissue contacted by the irritant will be covered with blisters. If a flaming digestive tract doesn't cramp your style, I don't know what will. Spanish fly is considered medically too dangerous for human use. Of course, in the name of love, we are driving white rhinos to the brink of extinction, choking down oysters and shark parts and ginseng, doing all kinds of loony things that have even less scientific foundation than Spanish fly, so I'd believe it if some fools have actually tried cantharides. Though, if memory serves, about the last thing high school guys need is more encouragement in whatever form

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