Nigel Cook is one the last of our summer interns to fly the nest. He’s just come to the end of an eight-week placement as part of his MA in Museum Studies at Leicester University, and has been based in our Life Collections. Over this time with us, he’s developed an affection for an unlikely insect.
I have been working with a historic collection of earwig specimens (some over 100 years old!), ensuring that they are safely moved into new storage and given some care and attention on the way. There was a time when the word ‘earwig’ would send a shiver down my spine, as I recalled childhood tales of eggs being laid in my ear as I slept. But now I know better; earwigs don’t make their homes in ear canals, you are much more likely to discover them under stones, or the bark of a tree.
Like me before the start of my project, few people know anything about this fascinating order of insects, so here are 5 amazing facts I have learned during my internship that might change the way you think about them.
- Mum’s the word
Unusually for non-social insects, earwigs make great mums! In several species, earwig mothers will stay and care for their eggs in a makeshift nest. They provide the eggs with warmth, fend off predators, and even clean the eggs regularly in order to prevent fungus growth.
- “Skin wings”
Earwigs belong to the order ‘Dermaptera’, a Greek name which is derived from the roots “derma”, meaning skin, and “ptera”, meaning wings. This is because most species have a pair of thin hind wings which fold neatly under a shorter pair of forewings, called tegmina, which act like a protective casing.
Yes, earwigs can fly! Although they rarely use this ability, it has helped them to spread worldwide.
- A strong grip
Many earwig species feed on decaying plant and animal matter, some eat living plants and others are predators. These carnivores usually prey on smaller insects, but with the use of the pincers (or ‘cerci’) on their abdomens, some earwigs are capable of snaring much larger insects. These pincers can vary in shape and size from species to species, and even between males and females.
- That itching feeling…
In the jungles of Africa, there are giant pouched rats far larger than the rats we might see scurrying around our cities. Within the fur of some of these rats lives a very odd earwig; those of the family ‘Hemimeridae’.
These tiny insects are ‘ectoparasites’, spending their entire lives on the rats. Wingless and blind, they barely resemble earwigs at all.
- Darwin’s collection
During his great expeditions around the globe, Charles Darwin personally collected many specimens to support his theories. Amongst these specimens were earwigs, some of which survive in museum collections to this day, including several here at the Museum of Natural History.
Although earwigs have carried a bad reputation for many years, it’s important to realise that they pose no risk to humans.
They are a diverse, widespread and very successful order of insects that have been wrongly labelled as ear-invaders. So the next time you find an earwig, see it the way I do now: as a fascinating insect that’s just a little misunderstood.
Nigel Cook, Entomology Intern