Of all the creepy crawlies out there, earwigs are one of the scariest looking ones. It doesn’t help that these insects have had a serious PR issue dating back hundreds of years. They even starred in one of the scariest episodes in television history on the 1972 NBC show “Night Gallery”, where a woman put earwigs into her husband’s ears to eat his brain and eventually drove him insane. It should not come as a surprise that this show was written by the master of macabre Rod Serling, creator of “The Twilight Zone”.
Pop culture aside, in reality, earwigs are a common nuisance for many gardeners. You may have discovered half-eaten plants in the morning or experienced an unpleasant surprise by accidentally uncovering some of these pincher bugs while working around your garden. A key step to pest control is to get to know that pest better. By studying how they behave and in what type of environments, you can arm yourself with information to better protect your garden and your home.
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|Common Name(s)||European earwig, common earwig, pincher bug|
|Scientific Name(s)||Forficula auricularia|
|Origin||Europe, western Asia and northern Africa|
|Plants Affected||Young seedlings, soft fruits and flowers such as marigolds, petunias, dahlias, and clematis|
|Common Remedies||Set up traps to mimic their preferred habitat or attract them with a pungent smell. Remove leaves, debris or or other hospitable environment around susceptible plants and your home.|
All About Earwigs
Let’s kick off by dispelling the myth that earwigs eat human brains. Luckily for us, they do not tunnel into our brains through our ears while we are sleeping. They find other food sources, like aphids, much more appealing.
There are 22 species of earwigs (Forficulidae insect family) in North America, but the one that poses the biggest threat to gardens and crops is the European earwig. As its name indicates, this insect is native to Europe as well as parts of western Asia and northern Africa. However, it was introduced to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s and quickly spread throughout the United States. Although they are now present in almost every state, earwigs are not commonly found in dry and arid climates.
Bugs with pincers tend to be the stuff of nightmares, but you need not be too afraid of earwigs. With proper management and a little vigilance, earwigs can even become a useful tool in your integrated pest control strategy.
Earwig Life Cycle
Adult earwigs hibernate in the soil during the winter. In the spring, each adult female will lay 30 to 55 eggs in her underground hibernation hole and watch over them until they hatch. Although maternal care is normal for us humans, this behavior is highly unusual for insects. If you think about it, it’s actually quite heartwarming.
The eggs will hatch into nymphs and go through four to five stages of metamorphosis before becoming full adults in the fall. Earwigs typically have a lifespan of around a year from when they hatch.
The telltale sign of an adult earwig are the pincers (cerci) located at the end of its abdomen which are used to defend themselves and to capture prey. Females have straighter pincers and males have more claw-like ones. They range from a pale-brown to dark red and are between 1/4 to an inch long. Although earwigs have wings, they rarely fly which makes getting up into our ears even more improbable.
Common Habitats of Earwigs
Earwigs are nocturnal omnivores that prefer moist and temperate environments. Their populations tend to grow in the wet spring and summer months. During the day, they typically hide in shady and damp areas such as under plants, mulch and leaf litter or even within fruits damaged by other pests.
You may also find your home accidentally infested with earwigs in the winter when they seek hiding places indoors. Since earwigs prefer damp and dark places, they are more commonly found in dark bathrooms or in basements and crawl spaces. Try to identify and block entry points into your home such as around the foundation to prevent earwigs from entering in the first place.
What Do Earwigs Eat?
Earwigs eat a varied diet of soft-bodied insects and organic materials. Because of their voracious appetite for aphids, earwigs can be beneficial in your garden.
Unfortunately, earwigs also eat ornamental and edible plants in the garden including many flowers, soft fruits and corn silk. Some mature plants can handle a bit of a nibble, but less established ones may suffer significant damage. If your garden is planted with a turf lawn or ornamental perennials, you shouldn’t need to be too concerned with earwigs.
An earwig infestation might be particularly bad after a rainy season. To identify earwig bites, look for irregular and ragged bites marks similar to those of slugs but without the slime trail. Go into your garden at night with a flashlight to catch them in the act.
How To Get Rid Of Earwigs
You may need to control their population if you have a serious infestation, but your goal should not be to eliminate and kill earwigs entirely. After all, earwigs can be a formidable ally around the garden against aphids and other pests.
Organic Earwig Control
In most cases, you should not need to resort to pesticides for earwigs. In serious cases, you can try organic solutions such as insecticidal soaps made from potassium salt of fatty acids, neem oil with an active ingredient of azadirachtin, or diatomaceous earth (DE). Make sure to carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions and quantities. Apply other insecticide best practices such as doing a test spray, not spraying in the heat of the day and reapplying the treatment when needed.
When using DE, make sure not to use the type for swimming pools and opt for food-safe DE instead. Take extra care to apply DE close to the ground, not in windy conditions and not around flowers so as to minimize its contact with bees. DE is made from the fine shells of diatoms that kill earwigs and other insects by cutting their underbellies and dehydrating them.
Environmental Earwig Control
Outside of your home, you should use traps as one of your primary tools for managing earwigs. There are free and easy-to-make natural tools to help manage earwigs without killing too many of them.
You can create an earwig trap to mimic their natural habitat by placing a cardboard tube or a rolled-up magazine around the affected area. Earwigs will seek cover from the weather and crawl inside the “shelter”. Then, simply remove your trap and tip the earwigs into some soapy water.
Another popular method is to bait earwigs with a scented trap such as with a leftover tuna or anchovy can with oil, or with some vegetable oil and a few drops of soy sauce in a shallow dish. Make sure that the trap is sunken into the ground so the top is leveled with the soil. Earwigs are attracted to the odor and will enter the trap willingly. The oil will prevent them from escaping. If you are worried about other animals getting into the oil trap, you can cover the trap with something like foil and punch holes through it for the earwigs to pass through while keeping other pests out.
If you find earwigs inside your house, the best way to get rid of them is to vacuum or sweep them up and dispose of them. You probably don’t want to have a smelly tuna can laying around the house, especially in the summer!
Most pest control strategies start with prevention. Preemptively discourage earwigs from coming near your plants by removing dead leaves, plant overgrowth, garden waste and anything that can harbor excess moisture. Check your susceptible plants frequently to monitor any signs of a problem to minimise harm.
You can also try to eliminate their habitat directly around your house to prevent an accidental home invasion. Pull mulch, ivy, groundcovers and other hospitable environments away from windows, doors and foundations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Why do they call them “earwigs”?
A: The word “earwig” comes from the Old English word “earwicga” which means “ear wiggler”. Because of their scary looking pincers, they have a reputation problem. There is an old myth that these insects can crawl up the ear canal to eat human brains. This claim is not based on science.
Q: Do spiders eat earwigs?
A: Spiders feed on small insects in general. They will eat earwigs when available and within their hunting territory.
Q: Do earwigs pinch you?
A: Earwigs can pinch if threatened, but the pinch does not hurt too much. These pinchers are used for defence against predators, hunting smaller prey or as part of their mating competition.