The Debunker: Will Earwigs Nest in Your Ear?

by Ken Jennings

Ah, June. The bees are buzzing, the crickets are chirping, the fireflies are glowing, and the June bugs are—doing whatever June bugs do, I guess? It's their month. In the United Kingdom, the connection between summer and the insect kingdom has been formalized by turning the last week of June into National Insect Week. We're also celebrating our six-legged friends all month, and we've called in Ken Jennings (not an insect, but at least a WASP) as a guest expert. He tells us that our insect knowledge has a few bugs.

The Debunker: Will Earwigs Nest in Your Ear?

The word "earwig" comes from the Middle English "eare wicga," meaning "ear-beetle." There are similar etymologies in at least six other European languages, and The Oxford English Dictionary credits that to a folk belief, at least a thousand years old, that the insects like to burrow through people's ears to their brain, where they nest, lay eggs, and cause insanity. This is a horrific idea that it's probably best not to imagine too much—though at least it gave us that crazy scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where Chekov gets mind-controlled by the alien earwig (oh, all right, the Ceti eel) that Khan sticks in his spacesuit helmet.

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In 1986, an Arizona physician reported to the Western Journal of Medicine that he was aware of two local cases in which an earwig was removed from the ear of a sleeping person. In one case, it had even lacerated the sleeper's eardrum with its little pincers. But the good doctor reassured readers that "earwigs are relatively harmless," and "enter the human ear rarely and only by chance." This behavior has also been observed occasionally in flies and beetles: they wander into a dark hidey-hole and are unable to find their way out. They don't want to be there any more than the moth you accidentally swallowed while riding your bike the other day.

Real earwig nests are just short tunnels in soil, usually near the rotting wood they like to eat. The human ear, devoid of soil and decaying vegetation and prone to lots of sudden movement, isn't where they want to be. And burrowing into the brain would be downright impossible for its little pincers, due to the layers of bone and tissue that separate the ear from the brain. Earwigs are gross, but unless you're a Star Trek character, you don't have to worry about them hitching a ride in your head. In the immortal words of William Shatner: "Khaaaaan!!!"

Quick Quiz: What mythological term is used for the immature, wingless stage of insects like earwigs?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.