Not dangerous despite their fierce appearance and often providing beneficial natural pest control, earwigs can sometimes cause problems when they munch garden plants and fruit trees or hang out indoors. Learn more about different ways to reduce and control these “pincher bugs” in our comprehensive guide!
Among those insects commonly encountered in North American gardens and homes, not many are quite so fearsome-looking (or off-puttingly named) as the earwig. These guys pose no bodily threat to people despite the impressiveness of their rear-end “pincers,” more technically called cerci (and source of the common nickname “pincher bug”).
And in fact, earwigs can be a beneficial presence in yards and orchards, which we’ll get into. But there’s no question they can damage certain plants and pose a real annoyance when they get inside.
In this article, we’ll present a little backstory on the most common earwig we’re dealing within the U.S. and Canada, detail the whole “pro-and-con” deal when it comes to pincher bugs, and outline ways to control or remove them both indoors and out.
To round up our tips, we tapped some pest-control experts directly and also gleaned insights from university extension services, which we’ll be linking to for further info throughout.
Without further ado, let’s dig into earwigs, shall we?
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Getting to Know the Earwig
While North America does play host to some native earwigs, including the ring-legged and the spine-tailed, the kind most commonly encountered in yards and households in most parts of the continent is the European earwig, an exotic species introduced from across the pond back in the early 1900s.
It’s an unmistakable customer: roughly 3/4 of an inch long, reddish- or blackish-brown, wielding those freaky-looking cerci on their posterior. These forceps-like appendages—stouter and more curved in male earwigs—are used in mating as well as to maneuver food and in defense. The European earwig does have wings, but rarely flies.
Before we go any further, we probably ought to address that memorable common name: “earwig.” The label stems from an old superstition that the insects are fond of crawling inside our ears, maybe burrowing into the old gray matter to boot—thankfully a false notion, by the way.
As the Farmer’s Almanac notes, “earwig” derives from the Old English ear-wicga, or “ear wiggler,” and the respective analogues in French and German are “ear piercer” and “ear worm.”
Earwigs are tried-and-true omnivores, eating both plant matter as well as animals: namely soft-bodied insects, insect eggs, and scavenged dead arthropods. They’re nocturnal, foraging at night and spending the day sequestered away in dark, tight, damp hiding places.
Outside, they shelter under mulch, stones, lawn-furniture cushions, plant debris, and within the folds and layers of leaves, flowers, and bark; it’s common to find them wedged within densely packed foliage of lettuce, for example, and tucked into blossoms (both of which also double as buffet tables). Inside, earwigs may take refuge under rugs, in houseplants or beneath their pots, and within stacks of newspaper.
In the fall, when earwigs retreat by pairs underground, females lay masses of eggs—usually about 30 to 50 of them—in cells an inch or two under the soil surface. “Fun fact,” Chelle Hartzer, board-certified entomologist and technical services manager for Orkin, says, “Earwigs are good moms!” And it’s true: The mother earwig protects her eggs, then tends her offspring when they hatch in spring, defending them and bringing them food.
Earwig nymphs go through a few stages called “instars”—four of them, to be exact. Initially white and gradually darkening, earwig nymphs resemble smaller, wingless versions of the adults. Once they’re able to forage for themselves, the nymphs initially feed at night and return to their nest for the day, but eventually become fully independent. When this happens, the female earwig often lays a second, spring clutch of eggs.
Negative Impacts of Earwigs
The main negative effect of earwigs is the damage they can inflict on plants: both leaves and fruits. They may munch heavily on leaves—basil and lettuce are common targets—and favor the tender growing tips of shoots, including vulnerable seedlings. They also feed on flowers such as dahlias, zinnias, roses, and marigolds.
They’ll also eat into soft fruits such as strawberries, peaches, apricots, and blackberries, and are notorious for munching the silks of sweet corn. (Though they’re less of an issue with harder pome fruits, earwigs readily invade apples, for example, which have been already gnawed into by other insects, mammals, or birds, as well as any that have split or begun to rot.)
The round-edged holes and bites earwigs leave in foliage and fruits can be confused with certain other invertebrate damage such as that made by slugs, snails, and caterpillars. If you see slime trails around the ransacked plants, you’re more likely dealing with slugs or snails. You can typically confirm earwig damage by checking plants with flashlights at night when those pincher bugs are out feeding.
Earwig impacts on shoots, leaves, and fruits ranges from unsightly to commercially destructive damage. Meanwhile, earwigs are somewhat less of an issue indoors: These insects will occasionally come inside, particularly in the fall or during extended dry, hot, or cold stretches of weather, but given the lean pickings indoors they don’t tend to last long.
Nonetheless, many homeowners find their presence annoying—especially given earwigs can emit, in defense, an unpleasant-smelling odor from scent glands. (They also don’t smell so hot when crushed.)
As we mentioned at the start, earwigs don’t pose a threat to people: They aren’t aggressive, and the worst you might get if you sit on or grab one is a mild bite or pinch—nothing extreme.
Benefits of Having Earwigs Around
Before you castigate earwigs based on the above (and their dangerous-looking getup), keep in mind these omnivorous insects can actually be more beneficial than harmful to have around your property. Besides their plant-eating, earwigs also actively prey on other insects and scarf down insect eggs, and favored quarry of these sorts include a number of potentially destructive pests.
As Washington State University notes, pests commonly eaten by earwigs include aphids, mites, and psylla (which often damage fruit trees), plus the eggs of the codling moth, also destructive to fruits.
Furthermore, earwigs provide another beneficial service as decomposers and scavengers. “Earwigs are actually beneficial insects that feed on decaying vegetation,” Orkin’s Hartzer told us. “They are little composters, and they return a lot of nutrients to the soil.”
Therefore it’s important to carefully assess whether you actually have an earwig “problem” in your garden or home before making efforts to get rid of the insects. And, as we’ll get into next, taking an “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM)-style approach allows you to minimize earwig damage to flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees and keep the insects out of your house without actually aiming to completely eliminate them (and their positive contributions) from your property.
Controlling & Removing Earwigs: Reducing Habitat
You have some things working majorly in your favor if you want to reduce or otherwise control earwig numbers at your home. The main tool is taking aim at essential earwig habitat, namely the daytime shelters they rely on. Removing or minimizing this habitat, coupled with the fact that earwigs don’t commonly crawl long distances (especially not through inhospitable territory), can cut down significantly on earwig problems without you needing to reach for the insecticide.
Try to reduce earwig-friendly landscape features in close proximity to places you don’t want them: a straightforward way to begin tackling the problem. Establish this clear, dry buffer zone by removing leaf litter, heavy groundcover, ivy, stacks of wood, scrap piles, and the like from around your foundation or bordering flowerbeds or vegetable plots.
Large paving or decorative stones give earwigs a hiding place, so consider similarly relocating these away from areas you’re finding earwig damage or aggregations.
When using mulch, select smaller fragments and apply in shallower layers to lower the appeal of this common earwig hangout (and keep in mind earwigs will often come with the mulch you bring in). “Don’t lay mulch down in layers that are more than two inches deep,” Angela M. Tucker, Ph.D., a biologist and board-certified entomologist who works as a technical service manager for Terminix International, recommends.
Preventing Earwig Entry Into Your Home
Creating the aforementioned buffer zone, which you might line with gravel, is a key way to stop earwigs from getting inside your house. “If a home has moist soil around its foundation and an abundance of leaves, dead plant material, and moisture, earwigs will have adequate conditions to eat, hide, and rear young,” says Hartzer. “Move landscape mulch, logs, decorative stones, and firewood away from the foundation of your home to create a zone that is free of as much organic material as possible.”
You want to make sure this dry and cleared zone is also wide enough to discourage earwigs from crossing it to your foundation or siding. “Leave a 1-foot-wide barrier between grass or shrubbery and your foundation or structural walls,” Dr. Tucker suggests.
Address spots around your house that accumulate moisture, an attractant to earwigs. “Proper drainage is key,” notes Hartzer. “Examine gutters and downspouts to ensure they drain away from the foundations. Set irrigation systems to water in the morning, allowing grounds to dry during the day.” Obviously ensuring good drainage around your house, including confirming there’s an adequate grade sloping away from the foundation, has benefits that go well beyond lessening the chances earwigs will set up shop.
If you’re noticing earwigs inside on a regular basis, inspect the perimeters of your house for entryways they may be using. Those include not only holes and cracks in foundation, siding, and screens but also gaps around windows and doors and holes in exterior walls for piping and cables. Use caulk, weather-stripping, insulation, and other material to seal such openings that are low to the ground.
Lights can also draw earwigs to your home. Hartzer suggests homeowners “adjust outdoor lights to illuminate the yard and not shine from or on the house. If moving your light fixtures isn’t an option, consider changing to yellow bulbs since white lights are more attractive to insects.”
How to Get Rid of Earwigs on Fruit Trees
Just as you buffer your foundation and your garden beds from earwigs, you can do the same around fruit trees that might be vulnerable to the insects. The University of California Statewide IPM Program recommends keeping the base of the trunks clear of tall weeds and suckers that might give earwigs shelter, and removing shedding bark from older trees. You can also apply such barriers as sticky tape and pastes such as Tanglefoot to the trunks.
How to Get Rid of Earwigs by Trapping
A good, chemical-free way to actually remove earwigs that can be pursued alongside the habitat modifications we’ve already covered is trapping. Earwig traps are easily and cheaply jury-rigged and can be quite effective when strategically placed and seasonally timed. Essentially anything placed near earwig habitat that could serve as a food attractant, a hiding place, or both can serve as a trap.
There are a number of styles of earwig traps that work well. One is a shallow canister such as an empty cat-food or tunafish container, especially if it’s buried to the rim in the ground (though this isn’t strictly necessary). You can bait these cans with fish or vegetable oil, or with bacon grease.
You can alternatively use a cardboard box punctured with access holes around the base, rolled-up newspaper, homemade tubes, or pieces of hose. Attractive as earwig shelters, these can be made even more desirous by adding bait such as oatmeal or wheat bran.
Place traps around vegetation, rocks, and other structures liable to be used by earwigs. They’re best “set” just before dark and emptied in the morning to take advantage of the nocturnal prowlings of the critter in question.
Earwigs will likely drown in the oil of canister traps; those accumulated in tube, roll, or box traps can be shaken out into soapy water to kill.
Insecticides for Earwig Control
It’s important to note that a combination of habitat modification and trapping is usually sufficient to keep earwigs under satisfactory control. You may, however, wish to resort to chemicals to deal with them, in which case you do have some options.
It’s, of course, essential to fully read the label of any insecticide you’re considering to understand its toxicity as well as confirm whether it can be used around certain plants, not least those you’ll harvest from the garden. As the University of California Statewide IPM Program notes, it’s best to apply these earwig-targeting insecticides in the evening to minimize their impact on bees.
That authority suggests spinosal baits or sprays “are the most effective, environmentally sound products” as far as earwig insecticides go.
Other insecticides recommended for earwigs include permethrin (available in such commercial products as ferti-lome Indoor/Outdoor Multipurpose, Ortho Bug-B-Gon Max Garden Insect Dust, and Ace Soil & Turf Insecticide), bifenthrin (OrthoHome Defense Max, Ortho Max Lawn & Garden Insect Killer, K-Gro Home Pest Control, etc.), and carbaryl (Sevin).
On the mechanical rather than chemical end of the insecticide spectrum, diatomaceous earth can sometimes be effectively used against earwigs as well.
Depending on the type and form, you can apply insecticide in a buffer fashion around your home or vulnerable plants, or directly on plants (again, making sure the given product is certified for use in that way).
How to Get Rid of Earwigs Inside
Inside, your best bet for eliminating earwigs is with a good old-fashioned broom or vacuum cleaner. If you’re having consistent trouble, it may be time to contact a pest-control company. “While [earwigs] are not a common indoor pest,” Terminix’s Dr. Tucker points out, “you may see one or two. If you see many—10 or more—inside a home, then you should get an inspection from a pest professional.””
How to Get Rid of Earwigs the “Natural Way”
Encouraging the use of your yard-scape by earwig predators, including frogs, toads, and insectivorous songbirds, is a solid natural way to keep pincher-bug numbers under control. Good Housekeeping also suggests planting the flowers and herbs such as dill, fennel, and calendula that attract the tachinid fly, which parasitizes earwigs, or employing the nematode Steinernema carpocapsae as a biological control.