Lend Me Your Ear

Lips can spit. Eyes can blink. The nose can sneeze. But the ear—that delicate wormhole into the skull—is defenseless. Perhaps this vulnerability explains our horror of earwigs.

The earwig is a damp-loving, creepy-crawly creature that looks like a cockroach with a lobster claw on its rear end. If you think you’ve seen more of them around in recent years, you’re right. Originally from Europe, the bug made its way across the Atlantic at some distant point in the checkered history of this nation, and has been conquering us inch by inch ever since. The insect launched its invasion of Minnesota relatively recently, after breaching the Wisconsin state line a decade ago, according to Jeffrey Hahn, an Extension entomologist with the University of Minnesota. “Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t here,” he says. “It is expanding its range, but why or how isn’t clear.”

Across the border in the wilds of Wisconsin, we’ve had a damp summer. As a result, we’ve encountered a larger number of earwigs than is pleasing: on the porch, in the laundry room, perched on the rim of a drinking glass. An earwig dropped out of my pants cuffs the other morning as I dressed. Another, I flicked off a plate of broccoli and pasta seconds before I plopped it in front of my eight-year-old daughter, narrowly averting disaster. Irene, not an insect lover, has been particularly worried about earwigs after she learned from neighborhood kids that the bugs got their name because they crawl into your ears and proceed to eat your brains.

Not true, says Hahn. By his lights, earwigs are largely harmless little beasts who enjoy snacking on decomposing plant matter and the occasional smaller bug. But doesn’t that lobster claw pose a danger? “If you were a small bug, that’d be one thing, but they’re just not strong predators,” Hahn says. And on the subject of ears, the entomologist is adamant: “I’ve never heard of a case where an earwig has gone in someone’s ear. If that happened, it would be by the purest of accidents.”

Yet the earwig has had its reputation for at least two thousand years.

“They like to crawl into all kinds of cracks and crevices,” explains Phil Pellitteri, an entomologist with the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “But there’s nothing in particular about an ear to attract them. In the old days, though, when people would sleep in barns, you know … ” More recently, in 1972 to be exact, Rod Serling explored the ear from the viewpoint of an earwig in an episode of Night Gallery, his less-remembered follow-up series to The Twilight Zone. In the episode, an earwig does chew through the protagonist’s brain, leaving behind a trail of eggs.

At Snopes.com, the urban legend website run by Barbara and David Mikkelson, the earwig story is classified as false. The entry, however, includes a reference to the Victorian-era explorer of Africa, John Hanning Speke, who recorded his experience when a small black beetle crawled deep into his ear. There it “began with exceeding vigour like a rabbit in a hole, to dig violently away at my tympanum. The queer sensation this amusing measure excited in me is past description.” Speke tried to dig the insect out with a knife, but only killed it. That caused an infection that, wrote Speke, “ate a hole between the ear and the nose, so that when I blew it, my ear whistled so audibly that those who heard it laughed.”

Speke might have deprived his traveling companions of their little joke had he paid better attention to his grammar-school Latin—for one of the earliest mentions of the boring habits of earwigs comes in one of the world’s first encyclopedias: Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, circa 77 AD.

Pliny was an accountant who shuttled from province to province in the early years of the Roman Empire, according to Trevor Murphy, a scholar at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: The Empire in the Encyclopedia. “He was intensely curious,” says Murphy. “In all his spare time, he had slaves reading to him. One slave on his right would read to him, and another slave on his left would take down notes that Pliny dictated.”

His goal, according to Murphy: “To describe the world.” Naturalis Historia begins with comets, stars, and weather, then narrows in to plants and minerals. Along the way, he has this to say of earwigs (in Philemon Holland’s 1601 translation): “If an earwig … be gotten into the eare … spit into the same, and it will come forth anon.”

Good advice from the ancients to bear in mind during these final hazy weeks of summer. Just don’t tell Irene.

A version of this story first appeared in Viroqua, Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Free Press (www.kickapoofreepress.com), where the writer serves as managing editor.