MANKATO — Earwigs have been again showing up in large numbers from Pemberton to Mankato to St. Peter this rainy and wet summer. Area residents’ discoveries of the dark-brown, inch-long insects have been as common as sightings of Pokemon Go players on Mankato’s downtown sidewalks.
Examples of overheard conversations about encounters with the creepy bugs whose common name is British slang for "eavesdrop":
“We saw hundreds of the little buggers when we tore old siding off the porch.”
“I found one inside a glass when I reached in the cupboard.”
“My sister’s house is so clean she could serve guests a meal on her kitchen floor — and that’s where they were crawling.”
"They just creep me out.”
Even bug experts understand why the earwig makes people queasy. “There’s something very disconcerting about a scurrying insect with pincers on its butt,” said Tammi Matthews with the executive office for the University of Minnesota's entomology department.
When The Free Press requested comments on its Facebook page, Laurie Evans of Mankato responded with her family's earwig adventures. Her mother lives in a ground-floor apartment in Mankato, where about 20 of the bugs scrambled out from under a couch when it was being moved.
Evans had an even scarier tale to tell: "One evening, I saw one on the footboard of my bed. I tried to kill it." While pursuing the insect that skittered away, Evans looked up to find another earwig crossing her mobile home's vaulted ceiling.
She is not the first person who's thought about earwigs when retiring for the night. Old myths unduly credit insects in the scientific order "dermaptera" with burrowing into the ears of sleeping people en route to brains to use as nesting sites for their eggs.
The origin of its common name is probably "earwicga" — an Old English word meaning "wiggling" or "wag."
Truth is, earwigs prefer to raise offspring in rotting compost, not our gray matter.
"They are scavenger insects most happy when they are outdoors in very moist, damp places," said Gustavus Adolphus College faculty member Yuta Kawarasaki, whose areas of expertise include entomology.
When earwigs unintentionally find their way into a home, they may be attracted to soft fruit that has been left on kitchen counters, Kawarasaki said.
Conditions have been ideal this summer for the bug, a native of Europe that started to show up in the United States early in the 20th century.
"Earwigs were introduced to the United States through the (plant) nursery trade. They traveled here in the bottoms of pots," said Matthew's coworker, U of M entomologist Vera Krischik.
The bug's bad rep can be traced to a time centuries ago when a mixture containing sugar was used to style hair.
"People used to find them living under their old wigs," Krischik said.
The short-winged insect has features similar to a cricket's or a scorpion. Pincers are used during mating and for show, to make other insects think twice about attacking an earwig. If cornered by a human, a finger may get nipped; however, the grasp of the non-poisonous creature's forceps is usually too weak to break skin.
"Their pincers clearly cannot hurt you," Krischik said.
Janelle Rauchman, chief quality officer for River's Edge Hospital in St. Peter, had no reports of earwigs bites to prove entomologists wrong. "I've heard lots of talk around town, but I don't know of anyone being treated in our urgent care or emergency room."
Earwigs live in dirt, so they may carry a bacteria or fungus harmful to plants, but mainly, they are a nuisance, Krischik said.
The insect has been mistakenly accused of termite-like behavior. Dermaptera are not a danger to buildings. Neither do they enter a home by climbing up through metal pipes.
"What we know is that earwigs have not been a problem, they are not an issue," said Duane DeBlieck, vice president of St. Peter Lumber Company.
DIYers who use tar paper or other materials under new vinyl siding to keep moisture out also will prevent insects from getting in a home, he said.
Although earwigs might enjoy feasting on rotting timber, foresters are not worried.
"They do live under logs and eat decaying plants, so it wouldn't be a leap to say that in wetter years there are more, although I can't say they are more common," said Alexander Watson, a naturalist with the Southern Region of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource.
Earwigs seem to prefer an urban environment.
A Facebook commenter from Pemberton said the insect was in her town at end of last summer, too, but the numbers were nothing like this year's. "I have sprayed numerous sprays, powders and have used bug bombs, and they are still surrounding my house and getting in somehow. They are so gross!!! Yuck."
Spraying would do little to control infestations, Krischik said.
"There's no real reason to use insecticides on plants — earwigs live on rotting things."
Homeowners should strive for a dry home environment as a way to discourage the insects. They should remove welcome mats, one of the earwig's favorite haunts. Repairs to eliminate spaces and cracks around the outsides of houses, especially at ground level, also helps. Yards should be cleared of old leaves and firewood. Stones and wood chips and decorative lighting should not be placed near a home's entryways.
A good vacuum or dustpan work best for indoor control.
Outdoors, they are a favorite food of nuthatches. Entomologists also agree cold winters make a large dent in earwig numbers.
Krischik reminds gardeners that earwigs can be beneficial. The little scavengers' diet includes the eggs of other insects.
She poo-pooed descriptions of dermaptera's killer instincts.
Earwigs are actually maternal, the rare insect that shows parental qualities.
"After a female lays her eggs, she wraps herself around them, to guard them," Krischik said.