Does the mere possibility of an earwig entering your ear make your flesh creep? Or are you firmly convinced that rumors about ear-dwelling earwigs are nothing but urban legends?
Earwigs make up an insect order containing about 2,000 species in 12 families. Their characteristic feature is a pair of pincers on the abdomen. These insects are found throughout both Americas, Africa, Eurasia, Australia and New Zealand. They lead a mostly nocturnal life, hiding in small crevices during the day and coming out at night to feed on a wide variety of insects and plants. The scientific name for the order, Dermaptera, is Greek in origin, stemming from the words derma, meaning "skin", and ptera, "wings". The common term, earwig, is derived from the Old English ēare, which means "ear", and wicga, "insect". The name may be related to the legend that earwigs burrowed into the brains of humans through the ear to lay eggs inside.
A female common earwig (Forficula auricularia).
Earwigs are not known to climb into external ear canals on purpose, but there have been anecdotal reports of earwigs being found in people's ears. Although these insects are relatively harmless and, in all likelihood, enter the ear only by chance, such an unwanted "guest" scrabbling about in the ear canal can cause a fair amount of pain and distress. Thus, there is a grain of truth in the ancient myth. A letter to the editor containing the following short report about an adventurous earwig was published in the Western Journal of Medicine in 1986.
"Earwigs are nocturnal, drab-colored insects of the order Dermaptera that are attracted to light and occasionally creep into homes. Their chewing mouthparts and forceps-like abdominal appendages give them a foreboding appearance.
The common name for these arthropods in at least six European languages incorporates a word for ear. The extended hindwing of some species resembles the shape of a human ear and [...] there is an ancient Anglo-Saxon legend that they crawl into the ears of sleeping persons. Entomologists, however, insist that this belief is without foundation. The following is the second report from Arizona - and also only the second in English literature - to document the veracity of the legend.
At 3 AM, my 8-year-old daughter awoke me from a sound sleep. She was extremely upset. For the preceding few minutes she had attempted to remove a creature crawling about in her left external ear canal. A light sleeper, she had been aroused by "the sound of little feet". Otoscopic examination revealed a dark brown mass near the tympanic membrane. My brief discussion with her on the importance of proper hygiene was interrupted when I saw the form move. Then, bathed in brilliant illumination from the otoscope, a female earwig (family, Carcinophoridae) cautiously emerged, to the relief of insect, child and father.
Earwigs do not, as once believed, enter the brain to cause insanity but they can enter the external ear canal while we sleep. Some species pinch sharply and forcibly eject a highly irritating fluid from abdominal glands. In the previous report a male earwig (Forficula auricularia) punctured and lacerated the tympanic membrane of a sleeping graduate student in Flagstaff, Arizona."
Fisher JR. (1986) Earwig in the ear. West J Med. 145(2): 245.