I have not been an earwig lover for all of my life. As a child, I remember my father making a nightly check on his prize dahlias and coming back into the kitchen with earwigs crawling out of the turn ups of his trousers. My mother’s predictable reaction meant that I thought earwigs were definitely not insects one was meant to love. Now years later, in my own garden, I can see the results that a small earwig population have on my own favourite Dahlias, Verrone’s Obsidian, and it’s extremely annoying. But this Christmas my husband gave me a book – “The Garden Jungle” by Dave Goulson and it has rather opened my eyes to the trials and tribulations of this little insect.
Goulson points out that earwigs are easily eradicated by sprays, and because they don’t fly and only produce one generation a year, they don’t re-colonise very quickly once they have gone. I haven’t used pesticide sprays for some years, with the exception of a drench for vine weevil in my containers, so I know I do have earwigs in the garden, although not in the numbers I remember as a child.
Earwigs are overwhelmingly beneficial insects, they feed voraciously on aphids, as well as munching on the occasional petal. In orchards where earwigs have been sprayed out of existence, trees are infested with three times as many woolly aphids as those with a good earwig population. It is generally the case that beneficial predators of a crop pest breed more slowly than the pests they feed on. Aphids, in particular, breed spectacularly fast, giving birth to live young which themselves have developing offspring inside them when they are born. In contrast, Mrs Earwig produces maybe 50 offspring a year, laying creamy eggs in a burrow in the ground towards the end of winter. She tenderly cares for the eggs, guarding, cleaning and turning them and looks after the young brood (nymphs) until they moult and gradually become independent. Then she turns them out of the burrow and they must look after themselves, foraging at night and hiding in the day in any crevice (or dahlia) they can find. They must do this all Summer and Autumn dodging predators while they grow, until winter comes and they find a mate and it all starts again.
The fierce looking pincers are actually quite feeble and incapable of doing harm to a human, they are used by the earwig in defence against predators such as ground beetles, and also in mating. The “wig” part of their name comes from an old word for “wiggle” and they definitely never burrow into ears!
We should certainly see earwigs as our friends in the garden, just as we now do ladybirds and lacewings. I have decided that a nibbled petal here and there is a small price to pay for all the good they do.