The Earwig's Tale

An entomologist and author exposes some widely held insect myths

By | February 26, 2010

One advantage of being an entomologist is that there's never a lack of material for small talk (as it were); with close to a million described insect species, there's an almost inexhaustible supply of stories to share. But I expect most entomologists have noticed, as I have, that a small number of species seem to come up in conversation with disproportionate frequency. These are the insects about which misconceptions abound. It sometimes seems that the majority of the most widely known insect facts aren't facts at all. So I wrote The Earwig's Tail, which describes my encounters with 26 of the most firmly entrenched modern insect myths. Here are a few highlights from The Earwig's Tail -- misconceptions that achieve particular distinction.
Oldest arthropod urban legend: the brain-boring earwig The common name of the "earwig," entomologically a member of the order Dermaptera, derives from the Old English "ear wicga," which, roughly translated, means "ear insect" or "ear wiggler". This name refers to the extraordinarily durable belief that earwigs crawl into people's ears and -- depending on sources -- burrow into your brain or merely lay eggs and hatch out a new brood of ear wigglers to drive you hopelessly insane. In reality, documented occurrences of earwigs in human ears are exceptionally rare; I could find only a single report after surveying about ten centuries of literature. This is not to say, though, that arthropods aren't found in people's ears; a veritable zoo's worth of insects has been reported over the centuries in ears and in fact linkurl:in at least one emergency department survey,;http://www.ispub.com/ostia/index.php?xmlFilePath=journals/ijorl/vol4n2/foreign.xml the most common foreign objects in ears of adults were cockroaches.
Newest arthropod urban legend: extinction prevention bee In the annals of apiculture history, the fall of 2006 was notable in that it marked the start of the mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) -- the inexplicable disappearance of the majority of worker bees from otherwise apparently healthy colonies across the country. CCD ultimately led to losses of over one-third of America's honey bees, the world's premier managed pollinator. linkurl:A story;http://www.sueddeutsche.de/wissen/570/326434/text/1/ in the influential German newspaper Der Sueddeutsche Zeitung provided a pithy assessment of the gravity of the situation from undisputed scientific genius Albert Einstein: "Wenn die Biene von der Erde verschwindet, dann hat der Mensch nur noch 4 Jahre zu leben," ("If bees disappear from the earth, humans will cease to exist within four years.") Einstein's apocalyptic quotation quickly made the media rounds, appearing in print in dozens of newspapers and Internet blogs around the world. Although the quotation sounded authoritative, particularly in German, at least two biographers of Albert Einstein could find no evidence that Einstein ever said it. In fact, it's difficult to imagine in what context Einstein might have made the remark. Moreover, the quote appears not to have existed before 1994, almost a half-century after Einstein died. So, if Einstein did indeed say it, he must have said it at a séance through a medium.
Most pervasive arthropod urban legend: the mate-eating mantis Even people who may be uncertain as to how many legs an organism can have and still be considered an insect know one insect fact with certainty--that, in the act of mating, the female praying mantis kills and eats her partner, usually head-first. This behavior shows up in films, television shows, novels, comic strips, and just about every other form of written communication; the combination of sex, murder, decapitation and cannibalism appears to be irresistible. Unfortunately, this fact probably isn't actually true in the vast majority of cases. There are over 180 species of mantids in the world and the phenomenon has been reported in only a tiny number; moreover, most reports have involved captive specimens and were likely laboratory artifacts.
Most baffling arthropod urban legend from an entomological perspective: the domesticated crab louse The bizarre linkurl:"Lousing Lifestyle" website;http://lovebugz.net/ purports to sell "specially bred pubic crab louses [sic] from Japan (not the same as homeless people's variety of lice exactly). First, they DON'T BITE, they just live off dead skin cells and such... Really, you're cleaner with them there than without them. Second, these babies are HUGE!!?And they just live happily in your underwear. It's so COOL! They grow, and have families?It's like having personal Sea monkeys in your pants." There is a relatively rare form of sexual orientation, a form of zoophilia called formicophilia, in which people gain sexual satisfaction from the crawling on or nibbling of the genitalia by ants and other small animals (including frogs or snails). But the "lousing lifestyle" didn't seem to be about sexual gratification; according to website manager Dr. Bugger, the lousing lifestyle is more about giving to others ("when you give them to someone else, it's like they become part of your family since their lovelice are the babies from mine"). Actually, the lousing lifestyle didn't exactly seem to be about pubic lice as they're known to entomologists. Amidst references to "crabs," "nice lice" and "love lice" were occasional references to "bed bugs" and "chinches," which are names reserved not for lice but for a species of bloodsucking true bug. In fact, if the "lovelice" don't consume blood, then they're not pubic lice, or any other kind of sucking lice, either, since all sucking lice require blood (not dead skin cells) to live. The site is likely a joke but the fact that it's not immediately discernible is a sad reflection of how little is known about one of only about a half-dozen insects that can't live without us. linkurl:The Earwig's Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-legged Legends,;http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/BEREAR.html by May R. Berenbaum, Harvard University Press, 2009, 216pp, ISBN 978-0674035409 US $23.95. Illustrations by linkurl:Jay Hosler.;http://www.jayhosler.com/ linkurl:May Berenbaum;http://www.life.illinois.ed/entomology/faculty/berenbaum.html is an entomologist studying plant-insect interactions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She has authored numerous magazine articles and five books about insect for the general public, and received the 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science Public Understanding of Science and Technology award. She is also the founder and organizer of the linkurl:UIUC Insect Fear Film Festival,;http://www.life.illinois.edu/entomology/egsa/ifff.html a celebration of Hollywood's entomological excesses, now in its 27th year. Correction (February 28): When originally posted, this story misspelled the book title as The Earwig's Tale -- the correct title is The Earwig's Tail. The Scientist regrets the error.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Audrey Dussutour: Insect Traffic Cop;http://www.the-scientist.com/careers/article/display/56017/
[October 2009]*linkurl:Six-legged soldiers;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/55104/
[24th October 2008]*linkurl:Insect Art Winners: A slideshow;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54360/
[ 22nd February 2008]

Comments

Avatar of: Richard Smith

Richard Smith

Posts: 1

February 26, 2010

Whilst most people now assume that the motivation for the name earwig (or its etymological ancestor earewicga) has to do with the insect entering the ear, this is only speculation. I have often noticed that the hindwings of some British species (I've not seen any from other locations) look remarkably ear shaped. Although they rarely fly, when they do so they wiggle their wings in preparation for quite some time, and then repeat the process on landing. I put it to you that this is an equally plausible reason for the name, especially given that earwigs have no particular fondness for ears.\n\nI thought you might also be interested to hear that, when breeding Sphodromantis lineola several years ago, I witnessed a female decapitate herself with a swipe of the foreleg whilst attempting to remove an interested male from her back.
Avatar of: daniel miller

daniel miller

Posts: 40

February 27, 2010

The point of the quote isn't who said it, but how accurate it is. If it happens to be fairly accurate, then it doesn't matter a whole lot who said it. I do believe that bees are an important part of our ecology and we really do depend on them a great deal. While we may not go extinct, we will lose a lot of our standard of living. \n\nAnd they don't have to go extinct for us to have problems. All they have to do is become greatly reduced in numbers.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 27, 2010

Which is it? About half the time in this article it's "tail", the other half it's "tale".
Avatar of: Joy Wiele

Joy Wiele

Posts: 2

March 1, 2010

This story, sent to me by a certain entomologist in the Czech Republic,ended up back in Dr. Behrenbaum's city of residence. I must also report that I recently met several of her fans in the University of Florida Butterfly center in Gainesville. Like the earwigs, May is everywhere.
Avatar of: Mitchell Wachtel

Mitchell Wachtel

Posts: 30

March 3, 2010

Vincent Price made a movie entitled the Tingler, summarized:\n\nAfter much hard work, a pathologist discovers and captures a creature that lives in every vertebrate and grows when fear grips its host. "Scream for your lives!" Written by Erik Gregersen {erik@astro.as.utexas.edu} \n\nThe coroner and scientist Dr. Warren Chapin is researching the shivering effect of fear with his assistant David Morris. Dr. Warren is introduced to Ollie Higgins, the relative of a criminal sentenced to the electric chair, while making the autopsy of the corpse, and he makes a comment about the tingler-effect to him. Ollie asks for a lift to Dr. Warner, and introduces his deaf-mute wife Martha Higgins, who manages a theater of their own. Dr. Warner returns home, where he lives with his unfaithful and evil wife Isabel Stevens Chapin and her sweet sister Lucy Stevens. Dr. Warner, upset with the situation with his wife, threatens and uses her as a subject of his experiment. When Martha dies of fear, Dr. Warner makes her autopsy and finds a creature that lives inside every human being, feeds with fear and is controlled by the scream. Once Martha was not able to scream, the tingler was not rendered harmless and became enormous. When the living being escapes, Dr. Warner and Ollie chase it in a crowded movie theater. Written by Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil \n\nhttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053363/plotsummary\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: Fred Giovan

Fred Giovan

Posts: 2

March 3, 2010

The illustrations are marvelous

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