“The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles,” quipped the biologist J.B.S. Haldane when he was asked if he could infer anything about God from his study of nature. The atheist Haldane was musing on the perplexing success of the beetle order; 40% of all insect species are beetles, which makes them perhaps 20% of all species on Earth, or one-fifth of all animals. But if Yahweh does have a peculiar beetle fetish, it may be because he’s a sexual masochist.
You have probably heard of Spanish Fly, whether sold in truck stop bathroom dispensers or in Nigerian internet spam. Well, here is the original Spanish Fly: a blister beetle called Lytta vesicatoria, whose body is crushed to make what many believe is a potent aphrodisiac. First used in husbandry to incite animals to mate, it wasn’t long before humans were dropping the powder in each other’s drinks to spark each others’ passions and hopefully get a little “husbandry” action themselves. But L. vesicatoria isn’t called a blister beetle for nothing: the active ingredient in Spanish Fly is cantharidin, a toxin which, in small doses, irritates and inflames the urinary tract, leading to a burning sensation the body can mistake for arousal. In only slightly larger doses, it causes permanent damage to the kidneys and genitals. It’s used to burn off warts and tattoos. Its properties and toxicity are similar to strychnine. In fact, it was the cantharidin from L. vesicatoria, applied to the neck by a quack doctor to quicken the blood, which seems to have killed Simon Bolivar, Liberator of South America. So, there’s Spanish Fly for you: At best, it makes your urethra burn and itch; at worst, it’s deadly. Its continued popularity and mystique only go to show just how far humans will go to gain an advantage in the battle of sexual selection, and our inability to tell pleasure from pain.
Within the Order Coleoptera, the beetles, resides the Family Meloidae, the blister beetles. They’re known for the caustic poison that causes blistering on the skin and sickness or death if ingested, and for having more than four stages of life; they have several different larval stages, including a predatory triungulin stage. In some species, the shelled, leg-having triungulins will bond together and cooperate to produce a sex pheromone which attracts male bees. The amorous bee, trying to mate with its impostor queen, becomes the unwitting carrier of the blister beetle triungulins, who ride him back to the hive and parasitize the bee larvae.
Meloidae, being poisonous, has some of the most brilliant colors in the beetle order:
Lytta magister, the Master Blister Beetle. Note the yellow, cantharidin-laced blood oozing from its leg joints.
Tegrodera aloga, the Iron Cross Blister Beetle.
How erotic actually is this insectoid symbol of lust? The beetles themselves will often have 24-hour mating sessions, the male riding the female on the underside of a leaf. Both sexes prefer large mates, so the female, unable to gauge the size of her mate visually, copulates upside-down to be able to weigh her paramour. If he isn’t sufficiently heavy, she will shake him off. (Blister beetles, like so many species, prefer fatties.) If the union is successful, the male will give the female a valentine: droplets of toxic cantharidin, which she will use to coat their eggs. So even the Spanish Fly uses Spanish fly to make females sexually receptive.
And how have humans used it? Historically, it was used in potions and philtres by both doctors and witches — the two were indistinguishable for a long time — dating back to the Roman Empire. Livia, the scheming wife of Julius Caesar, would put the powdered beetle in the drinks of dinner guests, hoping to cause impromptu trysts which she could later use for blackmail. Henry IV reportedly used it as old school Viagra, and Moroccan nobles sprinkled it gingerly on their food. Spanish Fly gained its ultimate popularity in the Royal Court of France, where it was slipped into Louis XIV’s meals to urge on the Sun King’s lust for his mistress, Madame de Montespan. She bore him seven children, so it’s possible Spanish Fly’s reputation as an aphrodisiac isn’t entirely unfounded. As the court had little better to do than host orgies all day long, erotic pastries became a novelty at Marseilles; Spanish Fly baked into anise candies were known as pastilles de Richelieu, after the notoriously lascivious Cardinal, or pastilles de serail (“pastilles of the seraglio”), and were passed around as freely as pot brownies are among some people today. The Marquis de Sade himself was sentenced to death by beheading after he gave super-potent pastilles de Richelieu to five prostitutes; three of the prostitutes wisely suspected there might be poison in the candies, and secretly threw them away, but the two who ate the candies nearly vomited to death. De Sade was found guilty in absentia of poisoning and sodomy, but because he couldn’t be found at the time, the court merely executed a straw effigy of the famous pervert.
The thin line between pleasure and pain was the obsession of de Sade, from whom we derive the word sadism. While a sadist derives pleasure from inflicting pain on others, the 19th century Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch took pleasure from his own pain. Primarily a philosopher of utopian socialist ideals, he’s best remembered today for his erotic opus Venus in Furs, in which the main character is willingly enslaved and punished by an Amazon figure and a trio of African women wearing mink pelts. Sacher-Masoch’s visions of submission and torture by powerful women was more misogynistic than one might initially imagine; “[W]oman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man’s enemy,” he wrote. “She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.” Wrong-headed when it comes to human relations, the original masochist nevertheless hit on something true: the battle of the sexes is often a literal and painful one, full of submission and domination, desire mixed with disgust. Sex and violence have ever gone hand-in-hand.
The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for sadomasochism. The animals on Noah’s ark would have mated with an astounding display of painful perversions: bedbugs that pierce their mates’ abdomens with needle-sharp penises; black widows and praying mantises which eat their males after the deed; marsupial shrews which mate until they keel over dead from chafing and exhaustion; octopuses that rip off their own limbs as love tokens for their gargantuan female lovers. Young female elephants have been crushed to death beneath over-excited bulls, and female tasmanian devils must be bitten in the face savagely and repeatedly before they can go into estrus. There’s a reason we say that only a few animals “have sex for pleasure”; sexual selection has turned mating into a painful experience for many species. By being difficult to bear, it becomes selective, and selection is what makes evolution work. The animals that can suffer the pain, and are in fact willing to fight for it, see their offspring rule the future. Sex hurts, but it hurts so good. Even the blister beetle, with a female that can buck her mate and a male which oozes deadly blood on his lover, is an zoological expression of the sympathy of agony and ecstasy. That the human body can register poison as pleasure and confuse burning genitals for burning passion means that, for all our advances in sexual gratification, our bestial side remains.