Assaulted by a pine processionary caterpillar!

With chunks of Dioscorides and Andrés Laguna, including the wonderful story of what happened when an impotent bridegroom and a constipated friar involuntarily swapped medicines.

The bugger dropped down the back of my jacket under the pines and writhed around on my neck and shoulder for a bit until I worked out that the rash was too intense and fast-growing to be due to some stray prickly pear (nopal/higo chumbo) spines and took out and killed the worm. The local guru recommended mometasone furoate and anti-histamine (both twice a day for two days, and then once a day for three days), and the napalm effect is receding a bit, thankyou.

All the post-Renaissance, pre-18th century descriptions of what authors variously call pityocampa, pityocampe, πιτυοκαμπη, eruca pini, pinorum eruca etc etc seem to be based on Dioscorides. He recommends toasting them a bit to preserve them and then using them to blister the skin and thus cure scabies and other dermal ailments, as well as mixing them with vaginal suppositories to help induce menstruation. Both those sound like spectacularly bad ideas, even if you do happen to be a naturist quack or don’t happen to be blessed with a fanny, and Dioscorides himself later–perhaps earlier might have been more appropriate–describes the terrible consequences of swallowing a caterpillar raw.

This version of Dioscorides is the 1555 Antwerp reprint of the translation annotated by the great Spanish scientist, Andrés de Laguna and first printed in Venice in 1554. He notes that death by caterpillar is rare among humans, as “they direct all their evil against the poor pines”, and tells several anecdotes, of which the first is worthy of Boccaccio, about the medical misapplication of the blister beetle (cantárida), which was classed with the pine processionary caterpillar because of its similar effects on humans:

In a certain pharmacy in Metz, I being resident in that city, a medicine containing blister beetle was prescribed for a certain impotent bridegroom; together with another made of golden shower tree [cañafístula/Cassia fistula, a powerful purgative] to refresh the liver and kidneys of the feverish Guardian of the order of St Francis. And it happened that, interchanging the beverages by mistake, the groom (who drank the friar’s) that night crapped all over himself, and what is worse, over the bed and the bride; and the friar, on the other hand, who drank that of the bridegroom, wandered back and forth through the convent (as well you can imagine) like one possessed, and neither wells, cisterns nor ponds were sufficient to cool his ardour.

Blister beetle taken in large quantities causes one to urinate blood, ulcerates the stomach, the kidneys and the bladder, and finally kills. I remember a noble lord of Germany (whose name I will conceal for his honour) one day in Carnival caused to be given to a chaplain of his (who was most hypocritical regarding fornication) in his wine in order to cheer him up more than 15 well-ground blister beetles, which killed him in the space of 24 hours there being no way of helping him.

The first truly sensible description of the pine processionary is in Réaumur‘s excellent 1736 Memoires pour servir la l’histoire des insectes but a decade later the animal-lovers at the Royal Society are still feeding caterpillars to dogs:

January the 5th, we gave a Dog 12 small Caterpillars of the Pine-Tree … weighing half a Drachm, which we braised alive and mixed with Flesh. The Dog, tho’ he was but young, received no other hurt, than that now and then he seemed as if he endeavoured to swallow something, or was troubled with an Inclination to vomit; from whence we judged the Stomach and Œsophagus to be only lightly affected: but these Symptoms vanished in a few Hours, and the Dog continued brisk, and greedy of Meat all the rest of the Day.

Whatever: stay off the blister beetle, hippies.

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    1. A Nun
      February 6th 2011 13:01

      Pine processionaries, the Muslims of the forest floor?

    2. Trebots
      February 6th 2011 15:00


    3. Candide
      February 6th 2011 18:12

      The Nun wants to conceal the fact that they’re catholic, which is understandable given the facts and the circumstances.

      What I wonder is where the golden shower tree got its name from. But I guess that urophilia dates back to the times of yore and could well be of etymological relevance here.

    4. Candide
      February 6th 2011 18:21

      (Hell, I just understood the photo. I had the rash on my arms once just because ignorant me wanted to save some seemingly defenseless creatures from getting squashed by the wheels of a tractor. This looks really bad. Sorry.)

    5. Mel Jibson
      February 6th 2011 19:10

      Candide – just chalk it up to the wisdom of the ancients.

    6. Trebots
      February 7th 2011 08:47

      I think the Royal Society may have bruised, not braised, them alive. I’ll take whichever is worst.

    7. Trebots
      March 4th 2011 22:06

      For anyone who’s reading this because they’ve been affected, I took double the dose above (that’s what the quack recommended, even though the manufacturers are more cautious) and gradually reduced anti-histamine and anti-inflammatories, and four weeks later I’ve still got some residual itching and skin sensitivity. God knows what happens if a whole nest falls down your shirt. And this creature is freely available to psychos all round the Med…

    8. Tom
      March 7th 2011 12:06

      Can these things kill you? I mean, it’s obviously a toxin that causes the rash.

    9. Candide
      March 7th 2011 13:21

      Ah, in comes one of those psychos! Who do you wanna kill, Tom?

      @ Trebots: Maybe you’re allergic. Get yourself checked before returning to the pines. Allergies can get worse and extend to other substances.

    10. Trebots
      March 10th 2011 23:12

      I think deaths are pretty rare – I guess basically you have to swallow one, cos if a dog licks one they just cut its tongue off and that’s that – but my completely non-medical mind can imagine you ending up with chronic dermatitis as a result.

      @Candide: yeah, allergic to most things, but I think this is a standard -pillar-on-human reaction!

    11. Candide
      March 11th 2011 01:50

      Did you have to give out advise to the psychos? Who knows if we’ll ever meet one. Imagine not only Tom, who just runs a virtual world, but a waiter of the Zurich reads you!

      Al Quaeda is nothing against that. (They haven’t used ABC weapons so far.)

      As to your allergies, I hope you have your sensitivities updated regularly and your shots in the rucksack.

      We don’t want to lose a thinker for a small tinker.

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