The cytotoxic peptide from honeybee venom, melittin, and a synthetic peptide analogue of it lyse human erythrocytes in a biphasic process. The kinetics of the lysis in 0.30 M sucrose, 0.01 M sodium phosphate, pH 7.30 at 4 degrees C were investigated. Our results show that melittin rapidly binds to the outer surface of the erythrocyte membrane, and the surface-bound monomers produce transient openings through which approximately 40 hemoglobin molecules can escape. Concomitantly, the melittin loses its ability to effect the process, presumably by translocation through the bilayer. The half-life for this process is 1.2 min. In a much slower process, dimers of this internalized melittin again produce transient membrane openings in a steady state. On a molar basis, the synthetic peptide analogue produces a fast process comparable to that caused by melittin, but is more efficient in the slow phase. Escape of hemoglobin and of carbonic anhydrase through the openings is diffusion controlled. These results suggest that the functional units necessary for the activity of melittin-like cytotoxic peptides are a 20 amino acid amphiphilic alpha-helix with a hydrophobic:hydrophilic ratio greater than 1 and a short segment with a high concentration of positive charges.