Earwigs are remarkably tactile creatures

 

ANOTHER LIFE:IT WAS NOT the best of summers in which to start growing your own. So much rain, so many blight warnings, such green waves of weeds, so little sunshine to reward brave experiments with outdoor sweetcorn, squashes, peppers, bush tomatoes. Whole legions of slugs mowed down one’s seedlings. Write it off, perhaps, to experience — gardeners invented “going forward”. But some things should have done well – cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, for example. And along with the novel pleasure of bringing such homegrown vegetables to the kitchen sink for the first time, there could arise encounters, infrequent since childhood, with native invertebrate wildlife, writes MICHAEL VINEY

Hosed out from their crevices, slugs of the minor sort are yucky but unintimidating. Invisibly green, moth caterpillars can be a special nuisance when hiding in heads of broccoli (which, for that reason, I grow under a net) but this year’s rain has, in any case, reduced lepidopteral flying hours. Which leaves the earwig, Forficula auricularia, to wash out from the cool, labyrinthine interiors of cauliflowers, in particular.

Earwigs are remarkably tactile creatures, liking to feel both their upper and lower surfaces in contact with something smooth (the rolled petals of dahlias, the hollow round the stalk of an apple as it hangs from the tree, the collars of shirts left hanging on the clothesline). The very name, earwig, reflects the folk belief that one’s earhole might be an attraction, with a consequent burrowing into the brain.

A first reaction, to wash it down the plughole, may be halted by knowing that the earwig is completely waterproof, its body armour coated in wax, so that it can survive hours of total immersion. Indeed, climbing up the overflow outlets of sinks is one known means of its entry to houses. But earwigs prefer to spend winter somewhere dry (as defence against fungus) such as seed capsules, hollow stems or in the spout of a disused teapot.

The earwig’s instinctive dash for the dark (it is, after all, nocturnal) marks it as one of the gardener’s allies. Any fast-moving insect is likely to be preying on slow-moving leaf-chewers and the earwig does its share of this, along with processing organic debris.

In New Zealand, indeed, with plenty of earwigs of its own, the introduced Forficulafrom Europe has been seen as a potential biological control on the leaf-curling apple midge and the tough-skinned scale insect infesting kiwi fruit vines.

Yes, but does it bite – or, rather, use those pincers at the tail? The forceps are weapons of defence or intimidation, larger and more strongly curved in the

male than the female (and

thus, perhaps, also meant for showing off in mate selection).

As for pinching people, “You will find out,” wrote Michael Chinery in his great Natural History of the Garden(1977), “if you press a fingertip gently on to the front end of one of these insects: the tail end is arched forward over the body and the pincers start to snap, although they are not strong enough to hurt your finger.” I have so far taken his word for it.

The other distinctive feature of earwig anatomy is very rarely seen, except in entomological drawings like the one on the left. The earwig’s order in biology is Dermaptera (derma: skin; pteron: a wing) and stowed away about its person are a pair of large, fan-shaped hind wings unlike those of any other insect, but quite as glittering, diaphanous and delicately veined as those of a dragonfly. The common earwig (there are many others) seldom if ever flies — not least, one presumes, because the wings are folded and refolded into about 40 thicknesses, so that it may have to use its forceps to spread them out or pack them away again.

Aside from the persistent belief that the insect frequents human earholes, many folk-names for the earwig focus, naturally, on the pincers (such as Scotland’s “forkie-tails”). In Irish, the earwig shares gailseach with the similarly pincered devil’s coach-horse beetle (more commonly the deargadaol) but Munster’s sile an phíce brings in the two-pronged hayfork along with the earwig’s rapidly retiring – and therefore effeminate – nature.

This raises a further charming aspect to the earwig: the female is a most attentive mother. Once she has laid her eggs in a nest in the soil – perhaps 40 or 50 of them – she evicts her mate and broods the eggs like a hen. She sticks to her post right through the winter and when the eggs hatch in spring she forages for her babies, keeping them with her until family parties venture forth, to be snapped up by robins and wrens.

So you could, if so minded, chase the earwig round the sink with a piece of kitchen towel and shake it out the window.