The Earwig’s Tail

When I was a child in Southern California in the 1930s, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ Victorian home in Los Angeles. Large trees, perennial borders, and a rose garden surrounded my playground.

My grandfather was a great teaser. One day, while walking with me in the garden, he leaned over to smell some flowers. Then he put his hand on my ear and warned me, “Look at this earwig I found in your ear!”

I was horrified and started to cry. When I told my grandmother, she was angry with him. He calmed me and admitted he had put it there. I was only six at the time.

That day was etched in my mind for years. When I started my first garden, I learned a lot about earwigs (Forficula auricularia). I’ve detested them all my life; when I see one between the petals of a rose, I waste no time dispatching it.

When I heard of this book, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. Little did I know that I would spend hours laughing aloud at the short essays devoted to a “modern bestiary,” created by the May Berenbaum, a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois. Of the twenty-four creatures discussed here, about half have appeared in my garden at one time or another.

With a sharp wit, Berenbaum recounts the myths connected with insects. After a first chapter devoted to the claim that bumble bees cannot fly (actually they can fly 450 million miles per gallon of nectar), she addresses my nemesis: earwigs. She notes that there are 1,800 species earwigs worldwide. The myth that they lay eggs in people’s ears goes far back in history. The French called them “ear piercers,” the Germans “ear worms,” and the Russians “ear turners.” They seek dark, moist places to live and rear their offspring. But, there is not a single record of one being extracted from a human ear.

Over the years, I have learned to be alert for earwigs in spring when flowers are opening, for I never fail to find them in the garden at that time. I have used various methods to keep them at bay. The most successful is a rolled newspaper placed where they congregate; each morning, I shake it and squash the earwigs as they hit the ground. They do serve one good purpose: they love to eat aphids.

Bees have been disappearing in California for a variety of reasons. I used to find three different kinds in my garden but can only find one there now. A rumour surfaced a few years ago that “if bees disappear from the earth, humans will cease to exist within four years.” The remark has been attributed to Albert Einstein, but Berenbaum has found no evidence of truth in it. There are many other pollinators that will keep us from starving.

The author has great fun debunking the myths associated with various types of flies that have become the subject of science-fiction films.  Myths about fleas come in for a thorough examination as well.

The most interesting insect in the book is the right-handed ant! Ants that are “intoxicated always fall over on their right sides.” There have been experiments to record this behavior. I can find ants in my garden any day of the year, so I must see if I can lure them to a drop of Scotch to see what happens.

Caterpillars appear from time to time, but I have always been careful to remove them from the plants I value to other parts of the garden. I had noted the orange rings on those called woolly bears, but had never heard the stories of the rings foretelling the weather.

Hidden at the back of my grandparent’s property was a privy, which was easy to use until I discovered a black widow! Berenbaum’s chapter on the Toilet Spider recounts some shocking myths that can still be found on the Internet. The “venomous daddy long legs” that I have avoided all my life, proves to be totally harmless; in fact, they are not spiders at all.

Fruit flies, beetles, mosquitoes (a large population of bats take care of mine), praying mantis—the list goes on. There isn’t a page in this book that won’t change your attitude toward or improve your knowledge of the insect world. The Earwig’s Tail will provide hours of entertaining reading. And, the bibliography is almost as fascinating as Berenbaum’s essays.

William Grant, garden writer
Aptos, California