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A Gardener’s Guide to Controlling Earwig Populations

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These creepy-looking critters get a mixed review from gardeners. On one hand, they act as allies in your compost pile and help control pests like aphids, mites, and various insect larvae thanks to their omnivorous diet of decaying plants and smaller bugs.

However, earwigs also have a downside. They have an appetite for many garden plants including dahlias, zinnias, butterfly bushes, lettuce, strawberries, and potatoes. They’re known for munching irregular holes in leaves, burrowing into buds, and nibbling on seedlings – super frustrating for avid gardeners.

What’s more, earwigs love moist environments, which can lead them right into your home becoming a nuisance indoors too. When their numbers get out of control outside, they can really wreak havoc in your garden.

While those pincers make earwigs look menacing, they actually play a beneficial role if kept in check. It’s just a matter of knowing when their population is too high and how to manage them effectively. With this knowledge, you can enjoy their pest control abilities while protecting your beloved plants from their less desirable munching habits.

An Introduction to Earwigs

Earwigs might look a bit creepy with their pincers (called cerci) and speedy movements, but these insects are actually quite fascinating – not as scary as old myths suggest. Typically brown to black, their elongated bodies range from 1/4 to 1 inch long, with six legs and two antennae.

You’ll find these critters in most climates, but they especially thrive in warm, humid areas. Earwigs are nocturnal, so spotting them during the day can be tough as they prefer dark, damp hiding spots like under rotting wood or in basement corners.

Part of the ancient order Dermaptera, earwigs have been around for about 208 million years, with nearly 2,000 species distributed globally except the polar regions. The name “earwig” stems from the Old English “ear-wicga” meaning “ear wiggler” – a nod to the old myth that they crawl into human ears.

An Introduction to Earwigs
Credit: The Herald Journal

Despite their fierce looks, earwigs are just scavengers feeding on decaying plants and other insects, making them helpful for managing garden pests. However, when their numbers grow too high, they can damage young plants and flowers by eating soft tissues and new growth.

The European earwig, Forficula auricularia, is the most common species encountered in North America after being introduced in the early 1900s. While they rarely fly, earwigs aren’t shy about entering homes in search of moist areas to settle. Inside, they’re more of a nuisance than a threat, often indicating unnoticed moisture issues.

Forficula auricularia
Credit: Wytham Woods

Thankfully, earwigs don’t spread diseases or bite severely, and their pinches are generally harmless. So while not the most welcome sight, earwigs play a neutral role in the ecosystem without posing big threats.

Those frightening old tales are largely unfounded – chances are they’re not out to get you, and might even help by munching on other garden pests.

The Omnivorous Earwig’s Impact

Earwigs are fascinating night foragers, actively hunting in the dark before seeking cool, moist refuge during the day. You might spot them hiding under soil clumps, boards, or thick plants, sometimes even inside fruits already nibbled by pests like snails or birds.

In colder months, female earwigs get quite domestic, digging underground nests to lay their eggs – often over 30 at a time. These eggs hatch into pale brown nymphs that stay under mom’s watchful eye, tucked safely in the nest until their first molt.

As the nymphs grow through successive molting stages, they begin venturing out nightly, though the youngest ones often return to the nest by day. Usually, earwigs produce one generation per year, though females may have two broods in ideal conditions.

Some earwigs overwinter by hibernating in pairs within their soil nests. In warm California regions, they may slow down during intense summer heat, while in milder areas they remain active year-round.

Diet-wise, earwigs aren’t picky eaters. As omnivores, they primarily consume dead or decaying matter but will attack living plants – especially young seedlings and tender foliage – if populations get too high.

They also prey on various garden pests like aphids, insect eggs, and grubs. This creates a dilemma for gardeners: allow earwigs to stay and control pests, or get rid of them to protect plants? Usually, earwigs don’t cause enough destruction to warrant drastic control unless you notice a surge around your crops.

So do those pincher-like cerci actually pinch? Yes, though the pinch is typically mild. Earwigs use their formidable pincers primarily for defense and mating rituals. Males have notably longer, curved cerci compared to the shorter, straighter ones on females.

Despite their intimidating look, earwigs pose little real threat to humans. They’re unlikely to bite, and the old tale of them crawling into ears is just a myth. Earwigs prefer damp, dark outdoor spaces like mulch or potted plants over living spaces if they come indoors.

So while they may give some people the creeps, earwigs are generally harmless – and can even be beneficial garden companions.

How to Spot Earwigs

Earwigs are easily recognized by their distinctive forceps-like cerci appendages at the rear. These pincers curve more in males versus the straighter female cerci. Adult earwigs reach about 3/4 inch long with a reddish-brown color.

Most earwig species have wings tucked under short, hardened covers, though they rarely take flight. Younger earwigs resemble smaller, wingless versions of adults.

Despite their somewhat menacing looks, earwigs aren’t aggressive toward humans and only pinch if inadvertently pressed against skin, like when trapped in clothing.

To locate earwigs in your home, search with a flashlight at night in moist areas like kitchens, bathrooms, basements, or near outdoor water sources and AC units. These nocturnal insects hide in cool, damp places during the day, emerging at night to feed on plants and insects.

Earwigs produce a noticeable yellowish-brown fluid with a strong, unpleasant odor when threatened or crushed. Identifying their damage in gardens is key; it often mimics caterpillar or slug damage. Check your plants after dark to confirm earwig activity.

Uniquely, female earwigs meticulously care for their eggs and young. Adults overwinter, with females laying white egg clusters in soil in late winter. Larvae hatch in spring and resemble tiny adults. Mature earwigs typically shelter under garden debris, stones, or boards.

female earwigs meticulously care for their eggs and young
Credit: Phys.org

Recognizing Earwigs and Their Damage

  • Adult earwigs grow up to 3/4 inch, with a reddish-brown color and distinctive tail-end “pincers” called cerci, earning names like “pincher bugs.”
  • While equipped with wings, earwigs rarely fly, moving quickly on foot and using cerci to unfold wings when needed.
  • Omnivorous earwigs mainly eat decaying matter but also attack live plants – veggies, fruits, ornamentals. They’re drawn to flowers and tender greens.

Recognizing Damage:

  • Earwig damage shows as jagged, hole-riddled leaves, often after rain when they seek shelter. Their excrement looks like small, black pellets.
  • Plant damage can mimic that of slugs/snails, but lacks a slimy trail, indicating earwigs are likely the culprits.
  • Regular nighttime inspections under pots and in damp garden areas can catch earwigs actively feeding, allowing timely intervention.
Recognizing Earwigs and Their Damage
Credit: Dengarden

Getting Rid of Earwigs in Your Garden

Drying Out the Area

One effective way to discourage earwigs is simply drying out your garden. Start by removing any ground mulch where these pests are gathering. Allowing the soil to dry out for a bit can make a big difference, since earwigs love moist environments.

You only need to keep it dry temporarily – once they’ve moved on, you can replace the mulch to keep benefiting your soil. This approach not only deters earwigs but can also reduce slugs, snails, and other moisture-loving pests.

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During dry spells, pull back mulch from affected plants and apply some diatomaceous earth, a natural powder that scratches earwigs’ soft bodies and dehydrates them. Just be sure to follow all safety instructions, especially regarding inhalation risks.

Effectively managing earwigs requires addressing their preference for damp, shaded areas. In drier climates like California, they’re often drawn to irrigated gardens’ moisture. Reducing hiding spots and surface wetness can significantly decrease infestations.

Regular trapping also helps. Typically, if you stick with these strategies diligently, there’s no need for insecticides. While bait traps exist, they don’t prove very effective since earwigs are omnivores. Remember, they can actually help control aphids, so comprehensive management is only needed in certain cases.

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Using Simple Traps

Earwigs can really bug your garden, but luckily they’re easy to trap using simple, homemade methods. As nocturnal feeders, they seek shelter during the day – the ideal trapping time.

Setting Up Effective Traps

Trapping is key for controlling earwigs. Strategically place several traps around your garden, especially near dense vegetation, fences, or your home’s perimeter.

An easy, effective trap uses low-sided cans like tuna or cat food filled with 1/2 inch of oil – vegetable oil mixed with a bit of bacon grease works well, or even fish oil for extra allure. Embed these cans into the ground up to the rim’s edge. Regularly check and dispose of trapped earwigs, refilling with fresh oil as needed.

Other DIY trap options include rolled newspapers, corrugated cardboard, bamboo sections, or short hose lengths. Just place these near susceptible plants at dusk, then shake out any caught earwigs into soapy water in the morning.

Eco-Friendly Trapping Ideas

For a low-impact, environmentally friendly solution, try these earwig trapping techniques:

  • Roll up slightly dampened newspaper pages and place around the garden at night. Submerge them in hot, soapy water the next morning to kill trapped earwigs.
  • Bury a can half-filled with soapy water at soil level, adding a bit of oil just below the rim to attract and trap earwigs.
  • Lay garden hose sections or bamboo between plants; collect any sheltering earwigs and drown them in soapy water each morning.
  • Mix equal parts olive oil and soy sauce in a container placed in earwig-prone areas. The scent lures them in, while the oil prevents escape.
Using Simple Traps
Credit: reddit

Advanced Trapping Methods

The oil pit trap is a sophisticated earwig trap devised by entomologist Whitney Cranshaw. It uses a small plastic container with a lid, cutting an entry hole in the lid, and baiting with a mixture of canola oil, bacon grease, fish oil, or soy sauce. Sink the trap so the lid is flush with the soil surface. Highly effective and selective for earwigs.

  • For Fruit Trees

Earwigs can also impact ripening fruit. About a month before the expected harvest, wrap corrugated cardboard around trunks and branches as traps to be changed weekly.

  • Using Newspapers and Cardboard

Lastly, simply placing damp, rolled newspapers or small cardboard boxes overnight in the garden can trap earwigs out feeding. Consider baiting these traps with oatmeal or bran for increased effectiveness.

Using these varied trapping methods allows you to effectively manage earwig populations while protecting your plants and the broader ecosystem.

Alcohol Insecticide Sprays

Alcohol can be an effective insecticide by breaching insects’ protective outer coatings. Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol works well if additive-free. Ethanol (grain alcohol) is often more potent. Typically sold at 70% strength retail or 95% commercial grade.

To make a homemade insecticide, mix equal parts 70% alcohol and water. For 95% alcohol, use 1 part alcohol to 1.5 parts water. This solution must directly contact pests, so aim carefully when spraying.

To treat earwigs, spray them with a solution of equal parts 70% rubbing alcohol and water. Always test by spraying a single leaf first and checking for plant damage over 24 hours before broadly applying.

Caution: Test the alcohol spray on a small part of the plant first. After 24 hours, check for any negative reactions. If the plant shows distress, dilute the mixture further and re-test to ensure safety before broader use.

Using Diatomaceous Earth Against Earwigs

Earwigs are vulnerable to diatomaceous earth (DE), a natural mineral dust made from fossilized algae remains. DE works as an effective, non-chemical insecticide by puncturing the outer coating of pests like earwigs, causing them to dehydrate and die.

If the weather is dry, you can sprinkle a barrier of DE around your plants to protect them. However, keep in mind that DE loses effectiveness when wet and can also harm beneficial pollinators, so avoid using it around flowering plants.

To use DE as an earwig deterrent, simply dust the dry soil around your plants. If the problem persists, reapply about a week later. Many organic gardeners prefer DE for its environmentally friendly, chemical-free approach to pest control.

Other Ways to Get Rid of Earwigs

Looking for alternative methods beyond diatomaceous earth? Here are some effective strategies to try:

  • Soap and Water Spray: A simple mixture of dish soap and water sprayed in earwig hangouts can help deter them by disrupting their outer coating, making your garden less appealing.
  • Boric Acid: Available at hardware stores, boric acid can be an effective deterrent when applied in known earwig locales, but keep it away from children and pets as it’s toxic.
  • Attract Natural Predators: Enhance garden biodiversity by attracting birds and toads that naturally prey on earwigs. Planting flowers like alyssum, calendula, dill, and fennel can encourage visits from tachinid flies, another earwig predator.
  • Vacuum Them Up: If earwigs and eggs invade your home, using a vacuum is a quick way to remove them.
  • Petroleum Jelly Barriers: Coating plant stems with petroleum jelly prevents climbing earwigs from causing damage.
  • Borax Around Woodpiles: Sprinkling borax around infested areas like woodpiles can help, but ensure pets and kids avoid contact as it’s toxic.
  • Sticky Barriers: Applying sticky substances like Tanglefoot, tape, or petroleum jelly around tree/plant bases traps climbing earwigs before they reach and damage the upper parts.

These methods provide tailored options to tackle earwigs in your specific garden conditions without solely relying on chemical treatments.

Using Insecticides

If other methods haven’t solved your earwig problem, insecticides may be considered as a last resort. Products labeled for crawling insects like Diazinon can be effective when carefully applied in the evening before earwigs emerge.

For dedicated earwig control, look for products with spinosad, like SluggoPlus baits or spinosad sprays – effective but lower environmental impact. However, baits may not work as well if earwigs have other food sources. Distribute baits around at-risk plants or near home foundations where they enter.

Moistening baits after applying can boost attractiveness. But once earwigs infest plants or fruit trees, baits alone likely won’t solve the issue. Stronger options like carbaryl are available but usually unnecessary with good preventive practices.

To minimize harm to bees and beneficials, apply at night before severe infestations and ensure product suitability for treated plants. Combining insecticides with earlier trapping and sanitation is most effective.

For a non-chemical approach, consider applying beneficial nematodes like Steinernema carpocapsae which naturally control earwig populations.

Preventing Future Earwig Problems

To keep earwigs from reinvading your home and garden, try these straightforward preventative tips:

  • Repair any window screen holes blocking entry
  • Seal cracks and gaps around doors, foundations, vents
  • Fix any plumbing leaks attracting moisture-loving earwigs
  • Remove debris piles providing hiding spots like wood, leaves, rocks
  • Keep mulch/plants 6-12 inches from foundations
  • Prune trees/bushes to reduce shade and dampness they prefer
  • Use dehumidifiers in damp basements/areas
  • Keep gutters and drains clear of debris/standing water
  • Be extra vigilant in removing plant litter in rainy seasons
  • Avoid planting susceptible species near walls/hedges they inhabit
  • Encourage birds and toads by creating sheltering spots – they eat earwigs!
  • Inspect any outdoor items for stragglers before bringing inside
  • Maintain a dry, clear perimeter around your home’s foundation
  • Vacuum up any indoor intruders
  • For persistent problems, call an exterminator for expert assistance

Implementing these preventative actions significantly reduces the likelihood of an earwig reinfestation, keeping your home and garden more comfortable and pest-free.

Frequently Asked Questions About Earwigs

  • Do Earwigs Bite?

While earwigs are not known to bite humans as they do not feed on blood, they may pinch with their cerci (the pincers on their rear end) if handled. This is more of a defensive reaction rather than an aggressive one.

  • How Long Do Earwigs Live?

Earwigs generally have a life span of about one year. Their life cycle begins in the fall with mating, followed by the females laying eggs in secluded spots like under debris or within soil crevices during late winter or early spring.

The eggs hatch within a week, and the emerging nymphs, which resemble miniature adults, undergo several molts before reaching maturity in the fall. The adults of the previous generation usually die off by the time the new generation matures.

In warmer climates, earwigs might have two cycles per year, but in colder regions, few survive the winter, limiting their numbers.

  • Do Earwigs Carry Diseases?

Earwigs are not vectors for human diseases. While they do not transmit pathogens that affect humans or our food sources, they might spread fungal or bacterial diseases among plants, although this is less common compared to other insects that actively feed on living plants.

  • Are Earwigs Commonly Found Indoors?

While there are many species of earwigs, the common or European earwig (Forficula auricularia) typically prefers outdoor environments and is only occasionally found indoors. Inside, they are likely to be found in damp, dark areas like under newspapers or in cardboard boxes.

They may also enter homes on potted plants that have been outside during warmer months. If you find them indoors frequently, it might be a different species adapted to indoor living. Regular cleaning and maintenance can help prevent their indoor presence.

  • Where Does the Name ‘Earwig’ Come From?

The name “earwig” originates from Old English and is a combination of “Δ“are” (ear) and “wicga” (beetle). This name may stem from the ancient myth that earwigs crawl into human ears to lay eggs.

While there is no evidence supporting this scary idea, it is likely an old tale to encourage hygiene and caution, inspiring numerous horror stories. Interestingly, some also believe the name could relate to the shape of their hind wings, which resemble human ears when unfolded.

  • Prevention Tips?

To prevent earwigs from entering your home, ensure there are no cracks or gaps in foundations, windows, or doors. Manage moisture around your property by fixing leaks and ensuring proper drainage. Regularly clear your garden and the perimeter of your home of organic debris where earwigs can hide.

If earwigs are attracted to your outdoor lights, consider switching to yellow or sodium vapor bulbs, which are less appealing to these insects. Chemical treatments inside the home are generally not recommended as they do little to effectively control an infestation.

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