Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Entomology

pp 2008-2010

Insects as Aphrodisiacs

  • Deirdre A. PrischmannAffiliated withUSDA, Agricultural Research Service

Throughout history, humans have used insects and their products as aphrodisiacs to produce physiological effects, real or imagined. Insects were used in various ways, including entomophagy, external applications of insect preparations, and as symbolic charms. Spanish fly, or the chemical cantharidin produced by meloids, is the most famous insect aphrodisiac, yet many insect species (or their products) in several orders have been used as sexual aids.

People around the world have consumed insects in hopes of curing sexual maladies and influencing their sexuality. Some of the supposed benefits were pleasure enhancement, genital enlargement, increasing attractiveness, love, sexual desire, fertility, semen quantity/quality, penile turgidity and erections, soothing scrotal irritation, and prevention of amenorrhea, groin buboes, male weakness, impotence, nocturnal emissions, and premature ejaculation. Insects in multiple orders were consumed in hopes of attaining these benefits, including: Blattodea, Coleoptera, Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Isoptera, Lepidoptera, Mantodae, Neuroptera, Odonata, and Orthoptera. The underlying reason(s) for associating a given insect with a particular amorous effect is often unclear, but can relate to its behavior, chemical composition, or physical attributes. One example of the latter is the belief that eating queen termites enhances human reproduction, because these insects are prolific egg producers.

Insect products were also applied externally in an attempt to cure ailments or alter genitalia. Ash from hornets’ or wasps’ nests was mixed with water or wine and applied to the penis for sexual stimulation, erectile dysfunction, and plentiful sperm production. People would also topically apply formic acid or dried ants in oil, which caused dermal irritation and thus sexual arousal. The “Kama Sutra of Vitsayayana,” a classic in erotic literature, talks at length about aphrodisiacs, including how men could cause permanent lingam (penis) enlargement by undergoing a 10-day process that involved rubbing oil and bristles from specific arboreal insects on their phalluses.

Other insects have a symbolic role, including cicadas and butterflies, which are associated with love charms and represent love and marital satisfaction due to their singing and beauty. Egyptians used a ritual involving scarabs bound with colored threads to gain sexual mastery, while Europeans analyzed ladybird beetles’ flight paths to discover potential lovers.

One of the most widely used aphrodisiacs is honey, either pure, mixed with other ingredients, or as mead. One common practice was ingesting various honey mixtures with numerous ingredient variations, including almonds, pine pollen, onion seeds, plant juices, fruit, radishes, resins, frankincense, oil, spices (pepper, saffron), drugs (cannabis, opium) and animal products (lizards, bird eggs, ass or camel milk, and dove blood). Other practices involved applying the honey directly to the body, either for sexual excitation or submissiveness, or genital enlargement for both men and women. To increase penis size, a man would rub honey and ginger or spit a mixture of chewed cubeb berries (Piperaceae: Piper cubeba L.), honey, and pepper onto the distal end of his member.

But perhaps the most famous insect aphrodisiac is Spanish fly. The name “Spanish fly” (in older literature, “Spanish flies” or “cantharides”) is a misnomer. It refers to blister beetles and/or cantharidin, a crystalline substance synthesized solely by meloids, including Lytta vesicatoria L. (Coleoptera: Meloidae), a species commonly found in Spain. Meloids biosynthesize and sequester cantharidin, which they subsequently use to deter predators (Figs. 23 and 24).
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Insects as Aphrodisiacs, Figure 23

Photograph of “Spanish Flies, Cantharis.” Crude drug form, donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1881 by Schieffelin and Co. National Museum of American History object catalog #50,590; Smithsonian photo negative #74–1947.

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Insects as Aphrodisiacs, Figure 24

Mating Meloe niger Kirby (Coleoptera: Meloidae). (Picture by R. Akre, Washington State University.)

Historically, Spanish fly was prescribed for a multitude of human and animal medical conditions, and despite its toxicity, has been employed in diverse amorous exploits over the centuries, including sexual coercion, orgies, and sexual blackmail. Spanish fly was ingested in several forms, including pills, desserts (cookies, laced candies, chocolates, and cakes), sweetmeats, liquor epispasticus, folklore remedies, and live and roasted blister beetles. Concoctions of Spanish fly were often mixed with other ingredients, including honey, spices (cloves, cubeb peppers, nutmeg, cinnamon and saffron), nuts or seeds (acorns, almonds, and sesame seeds), butter, and cannabis (Table 13).
Insects as Aphrodisiacs, Table 13

Historical uses of insects for sexual purposes

Insect Order/Family

Region Used/Consumed

Historical Sexual Use

 

Blattodea (cockroaches)

China

Enhance fertility, prevent sterility

 

Coleoptera (beetles)

 

Buprestidae (metallic wood-boring beetles)

China

Increase sexual desire and attractiveness, invoke love

 

Carabidae (ground beetles)

China

Invoke love between couples

 

Coccinellidae (ladybird beetles)

Europe

Discover mate(s)

 

Dytiscidae (predaceous diving beetles)

Malay, Singapore

Aphrodisiac

 

Elateridae (click beetles)

China

Increase sexual desire and attractiveness, invoke love

 

Meloidae (blister beetles)

Worldwide

Aphrodisiac, sexual stimulant, used in orgies, sexual blackmail, cure impotence, persistent erections

 

Scarabaeidae (scarab beetles)

Egypt

Obtain sexual prowess

 

Tenebrionidae (darkling beetles)

Malaysia

Aphrodisiac

 

Hemiptera (true bugs)

 

Belostomatidae (giant water bugs)

Malay, Singapore

Aphrodisiac

 

Cimicidae (bedbugs)

Morocco

Love potion

 

Pentatomidae (stink bugs)

China

Erection stimulator

 

Reduviidae (assassin bugs)

Mexico

Aphrodisiac

 

Cicadidae (cicadas)

China

Symbol of love and bliss, increase semen production and fertility, aphrodisiac, impotence cure

 

Coccidae (scales)

China

Sexual malady cure

 

Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, etc.)

 

Apidae (bees: honey, mead, royal jelly)

Worldwide

Aphrodisiac, increase sexual vigor, become more attractive, increase female subjugation, enlarge male and female genitalia, benefit sperm (male potency), increase sexual pleasure, premature ejaculation, confer fertility

 

Formicidae (ants)

Italy

Sexual stimulant, love potion

 

Vespidae (wasps, hornets)

China

Increase sexual stimulation and vigor, impotence cure, increase sperm count

 

Isoptera (termites)

India

Aphrodisiac, rejuvenation

 

Lepidoptera (moths, butterflies)

North America, China

Love charm, symbol of love and bliss

 

Bombycidae (silkworms)

China

Stimulate erections, prevent ejaculation, enhance semen, extend intercourse, ease scrotal itching, benefit women

 

Sphingidae (hawk moths)

China

Aphrodisiac, cause large erections, increase male fertility and semen

 

Mantidae (mantids)

China

Prevent premature ejaculation, nocturnal emission and impotence

 

Neuroptera (lacewings, etc.)

 

Myrmeleontidae (antlions)

 

Make married couples attracted to each other

 

Odonata (damsel- and dragon flies)

 

Anisoptera (dragonflies)

China

Stimulate erections, prevented ejaculation

 

Orthoptera (crickets, grasshoppers)

 

Acrididae (locusts)

China

Increase sexual desire and attractiveness, invoke love

 

Tettigoniidae (katydids)

China

Sex drive stimulator

 

Cantharidin was first isolated in 1812 from Lytta vesicatoria, and despite its reputation as a medical wonder and putative sexual stimulant, Spanish fly is highly toxic and can be deadly. Contemporary examples of cantharidin poisoning abound, both intentional and accidental. The latter commonly involve ignorance of the inherent danger of ingesting Spanish fly or blister beetles, although poisonings are not always fatal. Applied topically, cantharidin is a strong irritant that readily enters and affects the epidermis, causing redness, intense burning, and blisters. Ingestion results in mucous membrane corrosion, blisters and hemorrhage, epithelial cell alterations, dysphagia, nausea, dysuria, bladder lesions, hematuria, severe colic, intestinal inflammation and pain, and vaginal and rectal bleeding. Multiple organs and physiological systems can be affected, including the skin, heart, kidneys, intestines, liver, spleen, lungs, genitals and central nervous system. Extremely serious conditions include renal failure, intravascular coagulation, internal hemorrhage, seizures, spontaneous abortion, pulmonary collapse, myocardial degeneration, cardiac disturbance, coma and death.

Given the long list of adverse effects associated with cantharidin, why did people believe Spanish fly was an aphrodisiac? Because cantharidin irritates the urogenital tract, tingling and burning sensations are felt in the genitalia, and due to blood vessel dilation, the penis and labia engorge with blood. Because it made people more aware of their genitals, it was thought to build erotic passion and cause sexual excitement. Occasionally Spanish fly caused persistent erections, although this condition, termed priapism, usually is not associated with sexual pleasure, can require surgical correction, and if left untreated can damage the organ’s vascular tissues.

Due to their history, diversity, and varied biological activities, insect aphrodisiacs (notably cantharidin) have appealed to humans on several levels. They encompass a plethora of materials, concoctions, techniques, and ideas, with effects ranging from innocuous to deadly. However, although insect aphrodisiacs have outstanding reputations, these claims have not been validated, while the harmful effects of Spanish fly, or cantharidin, have been well documented.

Blister Beetles

Costs and Benefits of Insects

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008
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