As we generally do, I let my son pick out his bedtime story. He chose Once There Was a Tree, which turned out to be a fascinating little story about a tree getting cut down and then all the different animals that made use of the stup for various purposes. Quite well done, and the art is mostly extremely good. But there’s one passage that reads:
The warm sun dried the tree stump, and soon a new occupant had moved in – an earwig. Liking nothing better than the shade, he crept under the bark to sleep.
First, my son asked me what an earwig is. I had no idea, and the illustration in the book didn’t make it very clear. Second, my son – riffing off the name – asked me if earwigs go in your ear. Without knowing for sure, I said “no”. There are just some things you don’t want your five year old thinking about too hard right before bed. But I have no certain knowledge that this is true. So, here we go.
To begin with, this is an earwig:
So, yes. That picture, combined with a name like ‘earwig’, is terrifying. Wehn you dig into the meaning of “earwig”, it doesn’t get any better. According to Dictionary.com, the name comes from the “Middle English erwigge, Old English ēarwicga ear insect; from the notion that it enters people’s ears”.
According to the PennState College of Agricultural Sciences Department of Entomology, there “are twenty-two species of earwigs in the United States, twelve of which have been introduced from other countries”. Their article focuses on the European earwig (Forficula auricularia), which is “considered one of the most important earwigs since large numbers of them may seek shelter in homes and consequently become a notorious household pest”.
The European earwig was introduced to North America some time in the early 1900’s, and was first observed in the United States in 1907. They tend to be 5/8 inches long, with forceps ranging between 3/16 inch and 3/8 inch. Those forceps are used both for protection and to capture prey. They can fly, but rarely do, and they prefer to hide in dark, most crevaces. They’re omnivorous, eating most any plant matter and other insects.
Iowa State University, on their Earwigs page, addresses the question of whether or not they crawl into human ears:
Earwigs are a fairly well-known insect, from folk lore if not from actual experience. The earwig is the insect reputed in superstition to purposefully crawl into the ears of sleeping persons for the purpose of burrowing into the brain to lay eggs. Of course, there is no truth to these tales, though earwigs, like moths, beetles, cockroaches, ants and flies may wander into our ear canals by accident.
So, they might. But if they do, it won’t be any more deliberate than any other insect that crawls into your ear. I’ll leave it up to you to decide how comforting that is.
But if they don’t crawl into your ear so they can burrow into your brain and lay eggs, are they dangerous? The short answer is, “not terribly”. Not to people, anyway. Orkin, a pest control company here in the United States, has this to say on the subject:
Many people wonder if earwigs will bite people. The pincers are used for defense and if picked up and agitated, the earwig will exercise the use of the forceps. These are not stings or bites, though, which are terms used for insects with stingers or biting mouthparts. Even in extreme cases of large forceps of adult males, the pinch can be painful but there is no venom and the pinch rarely breaks the skin.
In the event that the pinch does break the skin, it is best to utilize the same first aid as one would use for any type of scratch. Keep in mind that earwigs do live in the soil typically, so there is the possibility of germs getting into the cut from the forceps. So, if there is a cut or open sore, or if the earwig pinch breaks skin, use a proper antibiotic lotion or cream. There is no telltale “bite mark” unique to an earwig as they do not hurt people. If there are medical concerns, speak to a medical professional.
So no, they don’t bite. They’ll just shank you with their tail pincers if you pick them up. And they won’t burrow into your brain through your ear. So really, you can stop worrying about that and start worrying about the eight spiders a year that it is claimed you eat in your sleep.
That’s not true either. But try and convince yourself of that tonight.