Blister Beetlemania: Lytta magister

We’ve identified the giant beetle in our Anza-Borrego post.

The brilliantly colored, inch-and-a-half long Desert Blister Beetle is the largest of all its brethren in the American deserts. According to my friend Mike Day, bugman extraordinaire, blister beetles exude an extreme skin irritant from their leg joints, which explains both their bright (warning) colors and their blithely undefensive public presence. Curious creatures: the adults eat mostly brittlebush, a plant loaded with its own warding-off chemicals that protect it from most grazers, but their larvae have an even odder niche. They predate the nests of solitary bees. They eat the food the female bees have stored for their larvae — and along the way, munch up the larvae too.

New to me — blister beetles are hypermetamorphic: they develop through several quite distinct larval phases. Kinda like our kids.

We’re unlikely to run short of blister beetles. There are about 7,500 kinds of them worldwide. As JBS Haldane once said, “God must be inordinately fond of beetles. He created so many of them.” Indeed, about 40% of all known insect species are beetles — about 350,000 forms of creaturehood.

Blister beetles, and this species in particular, zap us with cantharidin. We harvest it from this genus as a wart remover — and as the infamous Spanish fly, which is a violent, poisonous irritant of the urinary track.

So, dear Member of the Chain of Being, here’s how one tiny, tiny piece of the world works: With vast industy, bees harvest the male sex products of flowers (pollen) to feed themselves and their larvae, then with great labor, one stage of blister beetle larvae seeks out the underground lairs of the bees to steal their food and eat their babies, and then we send gimlet-eyed folk into the desert to collect beetles and steal their cantharidin . . . which we buy from another vartiety of human specialist, the pharmacist, to kill our warts, which are caused by a virus that only pretends to be alive.

Where’s Paul Hawken and his disintermediation when we need him? Wouldn’t it be simpler to try to remove warts with bees?

I have my own views about Nature’s methods, though I feel that it is rather like a beetle giving his opinions upon the Milky Way.

.                                                                           –Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



  1. mje said,

    March 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    were they in a mating frenzy?? they often are

    • billnoble said,

      March 23, 2010 at 5:01 pm

      They sure were! It was actually quite impressive: not only were most of the beetles we saw on this one ridge mating, while they were doing it they were crawling around like mad, chewing on all sorts of small plants, from annual lupine to filaree — almost anything, it seemed. Multitasking.

  2. Flora Branch said,

    May 27, 2010 at 11:53 am

    You’ve done it once more! Great read.

    • Bill Noble said,

      May 27, 2010 at 6:21 pm

      Flora – Thank you so much! One of the nicest things about other bloggers commenting is that you get to go and prowl their blogs! 🙂

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