European Earwigs: How to Identify Them, Treat Their Damage and Protect Your Garden

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Summer is here! Vegetable gardens have produced the first tomatoes of the season, perennial borders are bursting with colorful flowers, orchards are ripening, and rose bushes are coming out of their second round of blooms. On the surface, it appears that summer brings nothing but luscious flowers, lush greenery and an abundance of delicious summer vegetables, but with all this flowering and fruiting abundance, insects, birds, rodents and Big critics are also involved. The Bane of Any Gardener’s Existence: The European Corn Whig.

There are many pests that can wreak havoc in the landscape, and the list of active summer garden hazards is long. Deer, rabbits, possums, and gophers are year-round nuisances and don’t take a summer vacation. Aphids, scale, slugs, and snails are also year-round nuisances, reaching nuisance levels during the spring and fall. Rose slugs appear in late spring, lasting through early summer. Left unchecked, these soft-bodied sawfly larvae can damage rose plants, damage flowers, stress rose bushes and destroy an entire rose garden. Summer-ripening fruit can feed an entire flock of blue jays or crows — which is extremely disappointing when you’re planning a cherry or peach pie! In the vegetable garden, cucumber beetles plague all cucurbits, flea beetles pester eggplant and bean crops, and tomato hornworms chew through tomatoes. But the award for “worst all-around summer paste” must go to the European Earwig (Forficula auricularia). Native to Europe, this voracious, omnivorous insect first arrived in the United States in 1907. It spread rapidly across the country, reaching the West Coast by 1923.

Near the earwig
Earwigs are fairly easy to identify—just look for their telltale rear punctures and flattened bodies. They can grow up to 1 inch tall if given the right conditions.

What is an earwig?

Earwigs (aka pinworms) are slimy bugs named after an old legend that they crawl into the ears and tunnel into the brain while a person is asleep. While there’s no truth to this superstition, earwigs—with their large, curved pincers—are still quite intimidating up close. Ranging in size from ¼ to 1 inch long, earwigs have long, leathery, flattened bodies, six legs, and antennae that measure about half the length of their bodies. These pesky critters are really only a problem during the summer, but they can become a bigger problem if their population is not controlled. They are most active at night and hide in dark, confined, wet areas during the day.

Rose slug damage on leaves
Earwig damage closely resembles the rose slug damage seen here, but if there are no slimy trails or insect-like culprits present, you may have an earwig problem.

How to Identify Cornwig Damage in the Garden

Earwigs are picky eaters and eat a variety of vegetables, soft fruits and flowers. They chew holes in mature leaves, berries and flowers, and can readily eat whole plants and young plants. Erwig feeding can be confused with slug and snail damage, but these gastropods can be blamed in the absence of a slime trail. An out-of-control earwig infestation can also look like a rabbit infestation.

A method of systematically controlling or eliminating earwig populations

No one likes pests wreaking havoc in the garden. Fortunately, you can keep these unwanted creatures in check. Unless all else fails (which it won’t), avoid broad-spectrum pesticides—they hurt the good bugs as well as the bad—and instead use the following safe, easy controls: Try the methods of

Soil covered in garden debris
Areas of the garden that are strewn with plant debris and slightly damp, as shown in the photo, are excellent hiding places for earwigs. If you look closely enough, you’ll see one hidden in the upper left corner.

to clean: Monitor and clean up potential earwig hiding places, including plant debris, bricks, fallen fruit, overturned flower pots, and wood piles. Loose, airy mulch can also harbor earwigs.

Watch out for damp places: Earwigs like dark, moist places, so minimize excess moisture and keep soil surfaces dry if possible. Make sure your landscape has good drainage and that your irrigation system is leak-free.

Create a shelter for earwig hunters: Natural enemies include toads, birds and lizards, all of which can play an important role in controlling crowwig populations, so encourage these beneficial creatures to take up residence in your garden.

earwig network
A short length of PVC pipe can serve as a simple but effective trap (left). Another trap option (center) is a vessel with small holes pierced for entry into the earwig. Fill plastic trapping containers with vegetable oil and soy sauce (right), which will encourage scores of earwigs to “marinate” until you dispose of them.

Trap: A regular trapping program is essential. A short length of rolled-up newspaper or PVC pipe provides excellent accommodation for a earwig. Place them where you suspect an infestation, and shake a newspaper or pipe over a bottle of soapy water early in the morning. Alternatively, submerge tuna cans or empty yogurt containers in soil overnight so you can fill them halfway with a delicious 50-50 mixture of vegetable oil and soy sauce to prepare to be surprised in the morning. My chickens consider marinated earwigs to be the best treat ever.

A close-up of the Sluggo Plus bottle
Sluggo Plus is an officially approved bait that will eliminate earwigs as well as slugs and snails from your garden.

If the above tricks don’t control the earwig infestation and you need to resort to something stronger, Sluggo Plus is the way to go. An eco-friendly pelleted bat approved for organic gardening, Sluggo Plus kills not only earwigs, but also slugs, slugs, snails and pill bugs. As always, follow all directions on the label for best results.

Hopefully these earwig removal tips will help you enjoy the beauty of your garden this summer.

—Fonola Campion is the owner and manager of Petaluma’s Cottage Gardens in Petaluma, California.

Photos: Fionola Campion

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