What Are Earwigs?

For most people, insects don’t rank very high on their list of favorite things. But there are certain bugs that immediately make your skin crawl just by hearing their name. Enter: the earwig. What exactly are these insects? Are they harmless bugs or disease carriers? And why are they called earwigs?

In Name Only

First, let’s get your biggest concern out of the way: Do these insects actually wiggle their way into your ears? Short answer: No.

It’s a case of a misnomer that snowballed into a long-standing urban legend. The bug’s name comes from the Old English words ear wicga, which roughly translates to “ear wiggler” or “ear creature,” which is the where the myth began about this type of insect crawling into your ears while you sleep. Even more disturbing, the mistaken belief held that once in the ear, these insects can tunnel into your brain and lay eggs there. This, too, is false. These bugs aren’t even interested in entering the human ear.

Of the 22 species of earwigs in the U.S., only four or five of them are household pests that venture into our homes seeking dark, cozy places for shelter. (Not your ears!)

Where They Live

Earwigs hide out during the day under and inside leaves, in ground-level debris outdoors, stones, garden mulch, under loose tree bark, and cracks and crevices of trunks. They like dark, shaded, moist environments.

It’s only when they are disturbed (by humans, for instance) that earwigs scurry off looking for fresh hiding places that might include indoors, where they are often mistaken for cockroaches.

Earwigs are scavengers that come out at night to eat decaying organic rubbish, plus grass, plants, flowers, berries, shrubs, moss, and other insects -- dead or alive – such as caterpillars and the eggs from moths and other pests.

Earwig eggs are small, oval, and pearly white in color, and are laid in batches of 30 to 60 in underground nests -- far removed from your ears and brain -- during the stretch of seasons from fall to spring.

Continued

Are Earwigs Harmful?

Looks are deceiving when it comes to earwigs. Their claw-like forceps, called cerci, can seem menacing at first glance. But they use their pincers for protection from other animals and to capture prey, not to pinch or bite people. The adult earwig is brownish-black and about three-quarters of an inch long. The male’s forceps are curved and the female's are straight. Earwigs have a tiny pair of rear wings that look like fans when they’re open. Even though it has wings, the insect isn’t big on flying.

All in all, earwigs aren’t dangerous. They don’t usually bite people or spread disease. But you could get pinched by their “claws” if you pick up an earwig. The pinch might hurt, but their pincers don’t have venom. But they can wreak havoc on gardens, fruit, and leaves and stunt the growth of young seedlings.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on August 20, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Penn State College of Agricultural Studies: “European Earwigs.”

Farmers’ Almanac: “How Did These 7 Bugs Get There Names?”

Washington State University: “WSU Tree Fruit.”

PestWorld.org: “Earwigs.”

Lexico, Powered by Oxford: “Definition of the word ‘earwig.’”

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