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153708.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 7:28 am Reply with quote

Thought I’d have a look at earwigs ... if anyone else is already hard at work on them, please let me know, and I’ll move along ...

153750.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 8:25 am Reply with quote

The earwigs are considered “a very small order” - there are only about a thousand known species worldwide. In Britain, there are only two common species, as well as two others which are sometimes found in the south. They are limited in range by their inability to survive cold weather; the British Isles is at the limit of their range.

Now, entomological etymology (wake up, Flash!): we might catch out a few overconfident debunkers here. The usual explanation for the name earwig is that it means a “beetle of the ear,” reflecting the widespread superstitious belief that earwigs enter human ears, and eat their way into the brain. A rival explanation is that the word was originally “ear wing,” reflecting the shape of the wings. Some panellists are bound to have heard that - but in fact, the original “ear beetle” version is generally held to be the more likely.

All authorities dismiss the reality of this ear-fear; an earwig might well explore a human ear, if it happened upon one, because it is a cavity-dweller. But it could do no harm to the human. The myth is probably helped along by the fact that earwigs have a waxy smell, from a secretion of the abdominal glands. Apparently.

When their wings are packed away, they are folded in an extraordinarily elaborate pattern - each wing folded into about 40 thicknesses.

Despite their wings, most earwigs (other than the Small Earwig) very rarely fly. One reputable source (Chinery, below) suggests, apparently in all seriousness, that this is perhaps because it’s too much of a fag to get the wings unfolded and folded again. Can this be true? That the creature’s evolution has been too fancy for its own good? (Some species are in fact wingless).

Like the shield bug post 150056 earwigs are noted for maternal care. The female lays around 20 to 40 eggs in the soil, and looks after them all winter. Even well into the spring, long after the nymphs have hatched, it’s quite common for family groups to stay together above ground, the mother feeding and looking after the young until they are ready for independence.

Along with some other insects, earwigs show a “marked contact-response to surrounding objects.” It’s covered with sense organs in the form of tactile hairs, and when it gets itself into its preferred habitat, a dark and narrow crevice, it will - at rest - press itself into the contours of the surfaces. It’ll actively choose places narrow enough for it to indulge this habit. So, if you put an earwig in a glass jar, you’ll see it mould itself against the wall of the vessel. In a curved vessel, it’ll match one side of its body to the curve of the jar.

A field guide to the insects of Britain and Northern Europe by Michael Chinery (Collins, 1973).
Insect natural history by A.D. Imms (Collins, 1973).

153802.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 9:50 am Reply with quote

Some sources (eg say there are seven species in the UK.

153810.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 10:23 am Reply with quote

Earwigs eat decaying plant matter, living planet matter, and insects. However, it seems that the fearsome tail pincers are not used for hunting - by European earwigs that is; some tropical types are bigger, and decidedly carnivorous.

(Incidentally, that’s how you sex a common earwig - the pincers are more curved in males than in females.)

The pincers are used in mating (they mate end to end and grip on to each others pincers), for folding their wings (several sources say that; but if they don’t fly, do they do much wing-folding?), and for scaring off predators. Also, for hollowing out children’s brains and turning them into killer zombies, but there’s a government cover-up over that so I’d better not mention it. One or two sources claim that the pincers are used in courtship battles between males. I wonder how many of these uses have actually been witnessed, and how many are deduced?

I’m getting the impression that nobody actually knows for sure what the pincers are and aren't used for ...

As before, plus

153812.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 10:23 am Reply with quote

“EARWIGS' penises often snap off during sex. So one earwig family has come up with the obvious solution: keep another one in reserve to use in an emergency”

153815.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 10:40 am Reply with quote

“While the majority of earwig species are omnivorous, some species (the Hemimerina) feed on the shed skin of the giant rat and other (the Arixenina) feed on the skin gland secretions of bats”


153825.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 11:09 am Reply with quote

Ah-ha, now here’s some actual data on battlin’ wiggies ...

“Dr Joseph Tomkins of the School of Biology, and his PhD student Gordon Brown, spent four years examining earwigs on numerous small islands off the British coast including the Farne Islands where population densities are so high that the earwigs can be collected by the handful.”

The study was published in Nature, and discovered that earwigs are extraordinarily prone to “morph” and “the remarkable differences in morph frequencies which can exist between populations living just a few hundred metres apart.”

There are two morphs of the common earwig, which have distinct mating tactics - linked to size of forceps (or pincers).

The well-endowed morph (9mm forceps, ladies, what do you reckon to that?) guard their females against being mated by other males; while members of the other morph “struggle to do so with forceps half that length.”

Islands have much higher long-forceps populations; many islands studied had a “phenomenal density of earwigs, the reasons of which remain obscure.” The high population density means that “the likelihood of males engaging in combat over females increases as they will encounter rivals at a higher frequency.”

The long forceps morph was once thought to be a separate species, but it’s now know that males which “encounter good conditions while they grow” become long-forceps earwigs.

The prof said: “We know of no other species where such extraordinary variation occurs. Our work highlights how evolution is a process that takes place continually and close to home in species that are commonplace enough to live in our gardens or under our doormats!”


Possible question: what do earwigs use their pincers for? That could lead to the myths/forfeits, some ear jokes (link to Ears), and into their diet, mating and so on.

153886.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 1:53 pm Reply with quote

Mitch has done a lot of work on earwigs. Has he sent you a copy of the earwig piece from the Book of Animal Ignorance?

If not, please PM him...

153894.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 2:05 pm Reply with quote

This morning Bunter came up with a thing about how you can make all the froth disappear from a glass of beer by dropping some earwax into it (details over on the E Series Gen Ig forum). For sure this belongs in the same show as the earwigs.

153917.  Mon Mar 05, 2007 3:23 pm Reply with quote

Will do; thanks, Bunter. (Remind me never to accept a pint from you, though!)

166535.  Mon Apr 16, 2007 8:26 am Reply with quote

Earwig is not related to ears in every language. In QI's Maori dictionary, the its name translates as 'tail stinger', but the other word for it - mata - also means... electric eel.

How weird is that?

167198.  Wed Apr 18, 2007 5:47 am Reply with quote


The belief that earwigs bore into people's brains through their ears is reflected in the words for 'earwig' in many languages.

No matter what their word for 'ear' the superstition persists. In German it is ohrwurm ('ear-worm'); in Afrikaans it's oorkruiper ('ear-creeper'); in Turkish kulagakacan ('ear-fugitive'); in French perce-oreille ('ear-piercer').

I can add Danish to that list, but can also add dozens of languages where it doesn't work.

168037.  Fri Apr 20, 2007 4:01 am Reply with quote

The Manx word for earwig is the same as the word for "dung-fork"

168041.  Fri Apr 20, 2007 4:03 am Reply with quote

The Scotch-Gaelic word for earwig is gaillseach which also means "a mouth overcharged so that the cheeks swell out" - whatever that means!?

168045.  Fri Apr 20, 2007 4:14 am Reply with quote

The greek word for earwig is the same as the word for alligator, pruning scissors and yarn-changing unit.

...whatever that means.


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