Earwigs are nocturnal insects, drawn to moist areas. The common misconception about earwigs is that they will crawl into your ear canal and lay eggs in your brain. It is unclear why this is so widely believed. With billions of the tiny creatures on every continent except Antarctica, it seems that we would have had much more than just anecdotal evidence of earwigs crawling into, or out of, ears.
Possibly it is the name of the bug which makes us hold on to the fiction of their behaviors; after all, they must have gotten the name from somewhere. Indeed, it is believed that they are called “earwigs” because when their hind-wing is unfolded it looks like a human ear. Or at least that is what the entomologists say. Personally, I have seen hundreds of earwigs in my life, but I have never seen their wings unfurled. Equally as disturbing as the common name and associated wives’ tales, is the scientific name for the earwig, “Dermaptera,” which comes from the root words for “skin” and “wing.” The idea of a skin wing is somehow so unnatural, especially in the context of the earwig with its forceps-like pincers extending off the back of its abdomen, its long searching antenna, and its nearly uncrushable body.
Bingham County, Idaho lies in the southeast part of the state where its largest city comes in at just under 12,000 people. The area never developed into industrial or urban sprawl because the land is much too useful as farmland. This one county alone produces 30% of all the potatoes grown in the United States. The fertility of the farmland is largely due to the volcanic soil with which the valley plains are covered. Of course, left on its own, the environment is only able to support miles and miles of sagebrush. The rainfall is too sparse to invite much else. When combined with modern irrigation capabilities, pulling millions of gallons of water out of the Snake River, the volcanic soil flourishes. This combination of potato plant and water is a perfect environment for the earwig. There are over 1,000 different species of earwigs across the globe, but the common earwig, found in many parts of the U.S., is omnivorous. This easily recognizable earwig will eat plants, ripe fruits, and other arthropods. Some of its favorite plants include potatoes and corn.
As a child, the lawn that my brothers and I played on ended on the north with a canal and on the west and east with the neighbors’ fields of potatoes. On the south side of our property, broken up by a country road, the potato fields extended on for miles. I don’t know what it was that drove the earwigs from the potato fields, where they had an abundance of food and water, to our garden and house. Maybe the fields got too damp in the evening, the six-foot-tall sprinklers spraying a rainbow of water against the violent red and orange of the setting sun.
The first time I remember seeing an earwig I was three. It crawled up my shirt as I shrieked a death cry, watching the pincers on the back of the bug open and close. My brother, so wise and tall at five, knocked it off my shirt and stepped on it with his flip-flop. He lifted his foot, but the creature still wriggled around, heading for my shoes. It took four or five times of stomping and twisting before its body was spread across the sidewalk and it finally stopped moving.
“That’s an earwig,” he said, proud of his superior knowledge. “They crawl in your ears and eat your brains.”
And all these years later, it doesn’t matter how sure I am of the earwig’s indifference to the human ear. Psychologically, I shudder every time I see one, and am unable to sleep knowing the moment my conscious mind lets down its guard a swarm of earwigs will enter any crevice available.
One of the most unique things about the behavior of the earwig is that the female has maternal instincts. Twice a year a mother earwig will give birth to the creamy colored, tiny, round eggs. Surprisingly, instead of abandoning them, she watches over the tiny pearls; to her, they have meaning and importance. In fact, they are so important that she will attack any threat to her eggs and continue to watch over and protect them after they have hatched.
This was information I did not want to know. Somehow, knowing that the earwig protects its babies and young humanizes the insect to such a degree that I find it hard to contemplate killing it—crushing its body repeatedly until the legs finally stop running, twitching. Thinking about the mother protecting her eggs, which she lays in a hole in the dirt, makes me wonder how many of the earwigs I have killed were mothers who were no longer there to protect their buried pearls.
I will never forget the night that my cousin Diana and I boiled multiple earwigs alive as if they were their arthropodal relative—the lobster. In the late eighties, there were no cable lines extending into the rural Idaho farmland. We had a set of rabbit ears on our TV which, if one person manipulated them into just the right position and then held them without breathing, could pick up one fuzzy, local channel. Diana and I had tired of searching for the television signal. We had told all the scary stories we knew. We had painted all the finger-nails and toenails we could find, but we weren’t ready to go to bed. Instead, we raided the kitchen. I picked up a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese and began preparations. I had been cooking mac-and-cheese for at least two years—there were some benefits to having three younger siblings—and was so excited to show off my skill. We were too impatient to wait in the kitchen while the macaroni cooked. Also, there was the looming risk of being found out by my parents.
The only reason Diana was allowed to spend the night on a Saturday was that she was family. All friends were barred from Saturday night sleepovers because church was the next day and we had to “keep the Sabbath day holy.” Sunday was set aside for spiritual endeavors, rest, and family time; no television, no playing with friends, no shopping at the grocery store, no eating out, no working. Diana and I felt lucky. We were the same age and in the same class at school and we could play together on Sundays. However, we were afraid that if we were caught up late the night before church, the loophole we had been using would be closed.
Somehow, we thought that we would only be liable for cooking food after midnight if we were caught in the kitchen. After waiting the 8-10 minutes for the noodles to boil, we crept back down the stairs to complete making the meal. As we turned on the light and walked into the kitchen, at least thirty earwigs scuttled across the kitchen floor. They disappeared into heat vents and cracks between the cupboards. Undaunted, we walked to the stove to check on the noodles. Six or seven earwigs floated in the boiling water, circling around with the current. I didn’t understand at the time that earwigs are nocturnal and that they are drawn to moisture. I didn’t know that we had created a beacon call, inviting the earwigs to our midnight feast. Diana and I stood, motionless. Horrified.
“Will we get in trouble if we throw it away?” she whispered.
Fear of punishment battled revulsion.
“It looks like they’re whole. Like, I don’t think any pieces fell off them,” I said, as I scooped their soggy, yet brittle bodies out with a spoon and cringingly shook them into the garbage disposal.
We tried, oh how we tried to eat that macaroni, but after a bite or two, we were both running for the trash. For a drink. For anything to erase the thing we had done.
Earwigs seek crevices where they can rest until the relative safety of dark-ness brings them out of their hiding places. One of the reasons our encounters with earwigs might be so disturbing is because they are always so unexpected—an old log is pulled from the flower bed and we find our hand resting too close to a quick, skittering body. The only desire of the earwig is to return to it resting spot, while our inclination is to crush its firm body against any available hard surface.
Scientists say that the reason people fear spiders and other similar arthropods (earwigs, scorpions, centipedes) is partially because of the unpredictability of their movements, their dark color, and the angular form of their bodies. Also, we are more likely to have positive feelings for insects and animals that we find more similar to ourselves. We fear that which we don’t understand, even when logic should negate the fear. Commonly held misconceptions—the voices that echo from childhood—feed our fears and shape our feelings and reactions more than we know. More than we would like to admit.
I remember the first time I saw someone drinking a cup of coffee. My step-great-grandmother sat at her white and gold speckled Formica table; the acrid smell of her black coffee swirled around the tiny room. My great-grandfather had died twenty years before, at which point “grandma-great” had moved into town, too old to work their small farm or keep up with the acres of garden and grass. She frightened the grandchildren because of her accent. Even though she had lived in Idaho for sixty years, the twenty-five years of her youth in the Italian Alps heavily colored her tones. The more disturbing thing, however, was that black cup of nauseating smelling liquid which she always seemed to have in her knobby hands. Lacking social discretion, one of my cousins asked about that cup.
“Why do you drink coffee, grandma-great, don’t you know it’s bad?”
Every good little Mormon had been properly educated about the evils of coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol. Grandma-great always laughed loudly at this type of comment, her raspy voice (from the cigarettes I didn’t know about until even later) filling the small space to capacity.
“Don’t you know that it’s not what goes into your mouth but what comes out that defiles it?” she would ask, pointing her twisted finger at the offending child.
Yet we were unfazed by this logic. We already knew this was used by the weak, those who couldn’t live a higher life, to give an excuse for their evil ways.
Since moving to Washington, I have only seen a couple of earwigs. I would have expected them to propagate here like crazy with such a moist home for them and no killingly cold temperatures. Maybe they have predators here, or maybe they stay in the woods, their need to seek food and moisture from humans negated by the life-filled forests. One recent morning, I chose a chocolate-brown owl mug from the cupboard and looked inside of it to check for cleanliness (with children washing dishes, you never know).
Inside, trying to crawl up the slippery, ceramic side was a large earwig. I initially shuddered, and then laughed, remembering the ruined pot of macaroni, knowing how close I had come to pouring a stream of boiling water on this one. I know enough about earwigs now—like the fact that they eat spiders— that I no longer need to bash them until they are dead. Now, I help them to a dark hiding place, away from my house, and hope that they find their pearly, little eggs so they can get back to cleaning them.
After dumping the earwig under a large maple leaf, I returned to grab a clean mug. Then I sat on my front porch, drinking my steaming cup of coffee. I wondered what sort of stories grandma-great could have told if I had been able to look beyond the silly thing which separated us: her choice of drink, and my belief that this somehow made her a bad person. Sometimes I long for the feeling of home, for the simplicity of lifestyle, for the snow drifted higher than a car. Then I watch my husband spread a thin line of oil-based marijuana on a vitamin to dull the pain of his locked shoulder so that he can sleep. I hear that my uncle refuses to let my aunt try medicinal marijuana for her Parkinson’s because it is a sin to use drugs. My stepdaughter, Kennedy, now wants to be called Ken. At church they ostracize him; nobody understands. I don’t fully understand either, but that’s okay.
This was originally published in Spring 2018 edition of The Helix.