Male European Earwig – Dermaptera

2008 August 30

We had quite a plague of these European Earwigs (Forficula auricularia)[1] back in July, when there was still some moisture about. Now that it has been very dry for a few months their numbers have plummeted, but for a while there we were literally finding heaps of them every time we turned over a rock or picked up a board.

The European Earwigs are, as you might have guessed, a non-native species accidentally introduced from Europe. This particular species has evidently only been in Michigan for about the last 20-30 years, and so they are still prone to population explosions and sudden dieoffs as the local predators and diseases gradually figure out what to do with them.

There are supposed to be two other species of earwig in Michigan, one of which is another introduced species while the other is native. But, the European Earwig is the most common one by a large margin, and I think it’s the only one I’ve seen.

Earwigs are in their own order (the Dermaptera), and aren’t all that closely related to other insects. The European Earwigs like to crawl into moist crevices, which is helped by their flat bodies, high flexibility, and very slippery surface. Picking one up is tricky, they can squirt out from between your fingers very easily. The head is pretty standard, with long, beaded antennae that are pretty flexible, and mouthparts that are good for eating a variety of things that they scavenge [2]

Earwigs are not particularly picky eaters, they’ll eat fungus, decaying vegetation, dead insects, live insects if they catch them, stored food, garden vegetables, you name it. Because of this, they are likely to be found most anywhere that is sufficiently moist. I’m told that they can fly (No, really! They supposedly have wings tucked under those tiny little pads on their backs!), but I’ve never seen one do it, and they prefer to walk. This doesn’t slow down their spread, though, because they like to walk into crates, packages, luggage, and other things that we ship all over the world. So, they get shipped all over the world, too. They particularly like ships, so nice and dark and moist and full of food. That’s why the initial centers for their spread in North America were the port cities on the east coast.

The “forceps” on the end of the abdomen look pretty scary, but they aren’t strong enough to pinch painfully. If one grabs you with them, they’ll be able to hang on pretty good, but it won’t hurt (at least, it doesn’t hurt when they do it to me).

You can tell that this one is a male, because his forceps are large, strongly curved, and have small projections on them near the base. Females have forceps that are shorter, smooth, and not so strongly curved. If you startle one of these earwigs, they will flip their forceps so they point up, and will grab you with them given half a chance. Supposedly, they will sometimes use their forceps to grab other insects and hold them while they eat them (they are flexible enough to do this).

S_ thinks that earwigs are the most disgusting insects that we have around here. She isn’t quite sure what it is that triggers this reaction in her, though. Is it the squirminess? The color? The kind of “wet” sheen that they have? The fact that you find them in damp spaces that are a bit disgusting themselves? The “startle factor” when you move something, and suddenly a dozen or so earwigs shoot out from under it? So, a question for everyone reading this: Do you think earwigs are disgusting, and if so, can you pin down what it is about them that disgusts you?[3]

[1] “Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such other nature films as ‘Earwigs, Ew.’ and ‘Man Vs Nature… The Road To Victory’. “

[2] A few years ago, we had a major plague of forest tent caterpillars that defoliated the trees, and then made cocoons all over every available surface. But, before they could turn into moths, the earwigs also had a population explosion, and most of the cocoons ended up being gutted by earwigs cutting them open and eating the fat, succulent pupae inside. It was quite a massacre.

[3] I’m no help, because I don’t really find them all that disgusting. Some other people even go so far as to call them “cool”.

21 Responses
  1. August 31, 2008

    Do you think earwigs are disgusting, and if so, can you pin down what it is about them that disgusts you?

    Yes and yes.

    I’ve always found them disgusting. So has my wife. And it’s weird, because I hadn’t thought why until now. And now that I think about it, I think I dislike them for the same reason I don’t like wasps and hornets – they look predatory, physically seem to be able to back up that description, and can move fast when motivated.

    My wife, though, has a much better reason. Intrigued by Tim’s question, I also asked her why she finds earwigs disgusting. One part of her answer: she’s been pinched by one. And unlike Tim’s description, she said it HURTS:

    She was in bed one night. And she felt a tickle on her arm. Thinking it was a stray hair or something, she reached to brush at it. Then it pinched her on the arm. After feeling the pain, she looked at saw it sitting on her skin.

    In addition to having been pinched by an earwig in bed, my wife has these reasons for hating earwigs:

    1) They’re ugly.

    2) When they move, they seem almost snakelike – she describes their movement as “like a slither”.

    3) They really cling to stuff. Even when using just their legs, you can’t just blow on one to remove it, like you can with other insects.

    Another final nail for me in the gross-out scale is the name itself. Earwig. EARwig. I’m not sure what the “wig” part means, but anything involving little insects and my EARS?! …bleah.

  2. September 1, 2008

    Well, yes, that’s a lot of good reasons. About the painfulness of the pinch, I admit I was thinking in terms of getting pinched on the finger, where the skin is thicker. I guess getting pinched on the thinner, more sensitive skin on the arm would hurt more.

    And, according to the dictionary, “-wig” is Old English for “bug”. So it’s an “ear-bug”. They don’t *actually* crawl into people’s ears (at least, doctors don’t report having to remove them from peoples’ ears, which might not be exactly the same thing). Still, it makes a nice, creepy thing to say to small children when you want to freak them out.

    Overall, I’m thinking that a line of “Earwig Earrings” (I think we can all picture how they would be attached) would probably *not* be the season’s hot fashion accessory. Maybe in certain circles, though . . .

  3. September 1, 2008

    Disgusting? No. Freaky? Yes. I was frequently told as a child that they would crawl into my ears, nest in the canal, and I would have to get the nest surgically removed. Hence, earwigs and I are not on the best of terms.

  4. September 15, 2008

    Earwigs are hideous, mutant monsters. I hate them. It’s the forceps. They always look like they could leap up and rip your throat out with those things. Or maybe just give you a nasty pinch. Icky things, those earwigs.

  5. kevin permalink
    September 16, 2008

    Earwings are disgusting and freaky monsters. I hate them because they look very scary due to the ‘forceps’ on the end of the abdomen. It is not as harmful as it looks like if anyone pinches you then it wills not painfull as it looks.


  6. September 24, 2008

    It was either Animal Planet or Discovery Channel, but they counted down animal myths – these guys crawling into people’s ears was like myth number 2 or 3. There is no documentation that one has ever crawled into an ear (though I suppose it is possible that any bug small enough could crawl into your ear if it stumbled upon it). Further, even if an earwig crawled into your ear the anatomy of the ear would prevent them from “burrowing” or doing any real damage to anything. Apparently they would have to get through some bone and heavy tissue (which would probably be impossible).

    But, they are still pretty gross, probably because they look like they’d like to crawl in your ear and cause you some discomfort! 🙂

  7. Beau permalink
    November 18, 2008

    This is pretty poor documentation, I know, but I just removed one from MY ear canal. I’m amazed at the number of places where this phenomenon is cited as being a myth, because the thing definitely crawled into my ear while I was asleep. I didn’t even know what it was until after I drowned it in peroxide and dumped it out. It definitely caused some discomfort, and it definitely crawled in my ear.

  8. November 18, 2008

    Thanks, Beau! I’m sure that will revive many people’s childhood nightmares. I kind of suspected that it *could* happen (the crawling into ears part, not the building-a-nest-and-raising-eggs-and-maybe-eating-your-brain part that Moe and Seri allude to above), but direct observations are always good.

  9. shane a permalink
    February 19, 2009

    alright i felt something crawl into my ear then i felt a wierd pain and now on that side of my head in my brain there is a insane pain and i dont know what do do, it definately feels like somethings inside my head on my right side just past the ear drum but its also a decent way in definately in the brain so what do i do? is it a bug or just something wrong inside my head

  10. February 19, 2009

    Shane a:

    What should you do? See a doctor! It doesn’t matter whether a bug is in your ear, or you have an infection, or there is some other object in there, or what – if you have an “insane pain” in your ear, you need somebody to have a look at it. NOW! Ear infections are no joke, and there is nothing much that you can safely do to your ear yourself, especially when you aren’t even sure what the problem is.

  11. Tiff permalink
    July 22, 2009

    Just so you guys know… I woke up this morning with one of these trying to get inside my ear! eeeeeewwwwwwwww! Most of the websites I have visited say this is just an old wives tale, but I am here to tell you it’s true! I am totally freaked out by this, and think the only way I will be able to go to sleep tonight is if I have some ear plugs!

  12. July 22, 2009

    “they’ll eat fungus”

    Better get those ears cleaned, Tiff.

  13. Stevie permalink
    July 24, 2009

    Just a little FYI, I woke up at 4 am and had the feeling of water in my ear. So i got up and put a q-tip in there when i did this it was crazy scratching sounds in my ears followed by painful pricks. I then tilted my head to the side and shook when i did this an earwig fell out. So contrary to all the websites this really DOES happen. I am now in pain and waiting for my doctor to call me back. I will be sleeping with earplugs from now on. Worst experience ever!!!

  14. Sue P permalink
    November 17, 2009

    I never knew earwigs could fly until yesterday when I actually saw one, then I watched it fold its wings up and tuck them under that sheild-like thing on its back. What’s still puzzling, tho, is that it didn’t have those typical, ugly pincers on its tail, but had a pair of short, feathery projections to either side of the pointy tip of its abdomen, which is not present at all in the above pictures. What was I seeing? Is there a stage where the pincers are not fully formed?

  15. Sue P permalink
    November 17, 2009

    And I just thought of something else to add — I also had an unpleasant encounter with a earwig in bed. I woke up one night to a weird senstation on my fingertip. It wasn’t painful, but it felt like something nibbling on me. I turned on the light, and there it was, a g.d. earwig!

  16. November 17, 2009

    Sue: It might have been some type of rove beetle, they look a lot like earwigs but with short projections on the abdomen instead of pinchers. They aren’t actually related very closely to earwigs, it’s just a coincidence that they look alike.

  17. tracy laughery permalink
    May 10, 2010

    I don’t know if they hurt when they pinch, but I smashed one with my foot once, and it cut my toe like a razor blade. I had to pull it out, it hurt pretty bad, and a lot of blood.

  18. Canadian, Eh? permalink
    July 6, 2010

    I hate ’em because at my house, we have a garage door opener with a flip up lid, and whenever you open it 10-20 earwigs fall out. :/

  19. Chase permalink
    May 18, 2011

    i think earwigs r prety cool

  20. reagan permalink
    May 9, 2012

    ive always been a little afraid of these things, ive never actually touched one (was to afraid to) but the little pinchers and the way they moved always had my scared to touch it. untill recently when i had to do a project on them for school, i had never heard of them crawling into peoples ears and i have to admit that it is a little scary. the main reason i was scared was becuse of the painfull looking pinchers at the end, they would always give me the creeps, but now because of the reaserch ive done on them im not as afraid. i still dont really want to touch one, but i dont freak out when i see one anymore, and thank you for making this, it helped me with my project

  21. A random kid permalink
    June 9, 2016

    We don’t have earwigs where I live, and for that I am grateful.

    To be honest, they probably see us as icky monsters as well. Probably part of why they pinch.

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