How to get rid of earwigs, one of the scariest bugs of lore

Jul. 23—This story was originally published in July 2018.

One of the most vilified bugs in history, the earwig has inspired truly gruesome myths and stories. But despite the insect's intimidating pincers, it's actually quite harmless to humans. Nevertheless, they are a nuisance. And as earwig numbers naturally grow throughout the summer, people are searching for ways to deal with these unwanted pests.

"I left for vacation on the 11th of this month, and there were some [earwigs] in two particular places: in the chicken grain bin and in the bulkhead of the house," said Ronica Smith of Strong. "When we came back from vacation on the 23rd, they were, and are, everywhere. In the kitchen sink, in the tub, in my dishes, basement, crawling everywhere."

Smith was recently a part of a discussion about earwigs, and more specifically how to eradicate them, on the public Facebook page "Maine Homesteading." And from the posts, it's clear she's not the only one struggling with this particular creepy crawly.

"Right now at any given point, you could probably see three wherever you're standing [in my house]," Smith said.

For many, that may sound like a nightmare, and for good reason. For decades, earwigs have been misrepresented as dangerous pests. It all began with an Old English myth claiming that earwigs intentionally crawl into people's ears while they're sleeping, then bore into their brains, causing excruciating pain and insanity as they lay eggs.

This terrifying tale earned them their common name, a combination of the Old English words "eare," which means ear, and "wicga," which means insect.

Of course this name only perpetuates the myth, allowing earwigs to wiggle into horror films, poetry and more. One of the most unforgettable of these earwig-themed stories is the 1972 episode of the show "Night Gallery," in which a man is driven insane when an earwig is placed in his ear and eats through his brain. The episode has been labeled by several reviewers as one of the most horrific TV episodes in history.

"With the fierce appearance of these things, they certainly have some stigma associated with them," said Clay Kirby, pest management specialist with the University of Maine Pest Management Office.

With a long, armored body and formidable pincers protruding from its rear end, earwigs look capable of doing some damage, but they actually have no interest in humans. They use their pincers to hold live prey (other insects) and protect their nests. They only use their pincers on humans if picked up or otherwise provoked, and their pinch is unlikely to break the skin and doesn't cause any lasting irritation, Kirby said.

Also, while earwigs — just like ants and many other insects — have been known to wander into people's ears on occasion, they aren't actually capable of burrowing from the ear canal, through skin and bone, into the brain.

But earwigs can cause damage in other ways. As opportunistic eaters, they feed on insects and a wide variety of plants, which means they can be a problem for gardeners.

"I remember one case outside of Augusta where a gardener kept finding fresh holes in their bean plant leaves every morning," Kirby said. "I told them to go out late at night with a flashlight and do some scouting, and she called me the next morning and said, 'I got it! Earwigs were all over the plants.'"

Earwigs are nocturnal, feeding during the night and hiding during the day, preferably in dark, damp areas. People often find them under wood piles, in rock borders, under plants and sometimes in homes.

They can damage a variety of flowers, ornamental plants and vegetables by feeding on leaves and giving them a ragged appearance. Corn silk, according to the UMaine Pest Management Office, is one of their favorite foods. They'll consume it while it grows, which prevents pollination and results in poorly developed ears with kernels missing.

But earwigs aren't all bad. According to entomologists at West Virginia University, much of the damage once attributed to earwigs is now believed to be caused by snails, slugs, cutworms and other pests. And because earwigs feed on insect eggs and soft-bodied insects, they can sometimes serve as a biological control for certain pests, such as aphids.

Nevertheless, earwig infestations can be a problem. So how do you get rid of them?

One of the best ways is to create very simple earwig traps, Kirby said. These traps are essentially places where earwigs will seek shelter during the day.

"They like moisture and dark places to hide, nooks and crannies," Kirby said. "If you keep a canoe in your backyard and you haven't used it in a while then flip it over halfway through July, that's where earwigs have been known to live. The canoe serves as a giant earwig trap."

Smaller earwig traps that are much easier to handle include a short wooden board, a piece of an old hose and a rolled up damp newspaper. Laid in an earwig-infested area, all three will attract the pest as a place to hide during the day. Kirby suggests checking these traps each morning, then shaking the earwigs into a bucket of hot water and soap. The soap breaks the surface tension of the water, causing the earwigs to sink and quickly drown.

"If you repeat this, eventually you'll suppress their numbers," Kirby said. "I think if people strive to diminish their numbers to tolerable levels, that's more of a realistic goal than getting rid of every last one. Sometimes people put so much effort into pest control then it discourages them when they find a few stragglers."

One thing to keep in mind is that earwigs spread primarily by transportation of products, according to the University of Maine Pest Management Office. During the summer, this transportation of earwigs can happen when people pick up items at yard sales, since earwigs often hide in cardboard boxes.

Also, any items left outdoors overnight — such as lawn furniture, potted flowers and laundry — should be checked for earwigs before being brought into your home.

Seeking dark, damp places, earwigs are often found around the foundations of homes, where they crawl into cracks and can sometimes find their way indoors. They're also commonly found around compost piles, especially piles with a lot of moisture and poor ventilation. Therefore, one important management strategy is to reduce or place traps by these prime hiding and nesting locations. Also, if you're finding them in your home, you should search for and seal any gaps in your home's foundation, windows and doorways.

For major infestations, some people opt to use chemical insecticides such as bifenthrin, permethrin and resmethrin, usually creating a 10-foot band around a home. And inside a home, household formulations of boric acid, bifenthrin, permethrin, resmethrin or tetramethrin can be used to control earwigs, according to the UMaine Pest Management Office, which stresses the importance of following label directions while using these chemicals.

"People have different philosophies when it comes to pesticide use," Kirby said.

For those opposed to using chemical pesticides, other options are available to help rid these pests from your home.

Rachel Rollson of West Gardiner has had problems with earwigs getting into her home and gardens in the past, but she's done a few things that seem to be keeping them at bay. First of all, she has chickens, which naturally control the earwig population by eating them. She's also placed a foot of crushed rocks around her house to reduce the moisture that tend to attract earwigs. And in her gardens, if earwigs are destroying her plants, she sprinkles a bit of diatomaceous earth on the ground.

Made from the fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms, diatomaceous earth is a fine white powder that can dry out and kill a variety of bugs, including earwigs. It's been used to combat bed bugs, cockroaches, crickets, fleas and more, according to the National Pesticide Information Center.

Because of its abrasive and absorbent properties, this natural powder is used in thousands of nonpesticide products as well, including skin care products, toothpastes, paints and water filters. Nevertheless, it should be used with caution.

"It's one of those things you have to be careful with because if it's near plants that attract pollinators, you don't want the bees to pick it up and track it around," Rollson said. "It could kill beneficial bugs. Also, you don't want to breathe it in."

If breathed in, diatomaceous earth can irritate the nose and nasal passages, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. It can also cause irritation and dryness on the skin and eyes.

Inside the home, sanitization is key. The more you clean, the less appealing an indoor space is to any pest, Kirby said.

But if worse comes to worse, and you simply can't get rid of all the earwigs hidden inside your home, at least you can rest well knowing they can't actually crawl inside your brain. So if they are driving you crazy, that's not why.

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