Ronald Rood had a great and somewhat timeless concept for a book. In 1971, he penned a little paperback titled Animals Nobody Loves, highlighting the wonders of some often-maligned creatures. The author cleverly divides the book of unloved critters into three sections, based on the reasons for finding them objectionable: The Way They Look, The Way They Act, and A Little of Both.
The first section includes chapters on the wolf, rat, flea, and mosquito, while the second includes the bat, snake, spider and — strangely enough, since I didn’t know that it was reviled — the octopus. The final section discusses the vulture, pig, eel and coyote.
While this book made great strides in showing the positive sides of these beasts, people still dislike many of the above-mentioned animals. Ron did leave out, perhaps by necessity, a few unsavory creatures. For example, there is no chapter on the much-abhorred earwig. Perhaps even he couldn’t think of anything good to say about it.
Neither can I. This insect is truly an animal that is hard to love, or even like, for that matter. Earwigs, also called pincher bugs, are those long, shiny, brown hard-shelled insects with the pointed forceps that crawl uninvited around your house (mainly due to the fact that they don’t fly well.)
Although they are harmless to humans (their pinchers won’t break your skin), they are still somewhat menacing-looking. The pinchers, called cerci, are used for capturing prey and holding on to their mate. The male of the species has curved cerci, while the females tend to have a smaller, straighter set.
See what I mean? Nothing admirable, so far, about this insect. And their image only goes downward from here.
Earwigs like dark, moist places, and arrived in this country as stowaways. Before 1909, they were unknown here. The first population in the United States was identified on the West Coast, and was thought to have arrived in plant shipments. Soon after a second colony was discovered in Rhode Island. Today these insects are common pests of home and garden.
In addition to some domestic disturbances, earwigs have been known to cause mayhem on a grand scale. In November 1950, the Washington (D.C.) Star published a wire service item from Copenhagen that reported, “An insect called the earwig caused the loss of three Danish boats valued at 350,000 kriner ($50,000) last night.”
The loss of the ships was due to earwigs that disabled a lighthouse because they clogged the fuel line, causing the lighthouse beacon to go out. Four boat captains ran their vessels aground without the lights, fortunately without loss of life.
Legend has it that earwigs were so named for crawling into your ear while you sleep and boring into your brain to lay their eggs. This is far from the truth: earwigs lay their eggs in the ground and are not interested in your brain at all, except they may perhaps have been interested in the dark, damp straw mattress that was used for bedding in the old days. Earwigs eat live or dead insects and decaying vegetation, or, as a bulletin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture put it succinctly, “They feed on filth.”
Two species of earwigs can be found in the dark, damp spaces of your home, but differentiating them is better left to the entomologist. No need to get too close to earwigs, even for the sake of science.
Perhaps I should have stayed mum on the subject of earwigs. After all, many mothers would say that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.