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EARWIGS CAN BE AN UGLY GARDEN PEST

written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Last night I was minding my own business, doing some office work when I felt a bite on my leg and then saw an insect start to scurry away. Worried that it might be a spider, I bent down to identify the offending creature. It was one of those ugly, repulsive earwigs. University publications will tell you that their bite is “mildly painful” and that they “rarely bite unless handled or sat upon.” The bite I received was no more than a pinch, but I didn’t do anything to threaten the obnoxious little guy.

The earwig that rudely interrupted my work was no doubt a European earwig. It’s native to Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. There are native species of earwigs in this country, but the European earwig has become a prevalent pest species. It was first noted in different parts of the U.S., including the Pacific Northwest, in the early 1900

s and now is found throughout most of the country.

You probably know what a European earwig looks like. It’s a dark reddish brown elongated insect with a pair of forceps-like pincers at the rear of its body. Mature adults can be as much as three-quarters of an inch long. They have folded wings on their back, but they seldom fly because their flying skills are poor. They get around by crawling and “hitch-hiking.”

Entomologists have tried to tell gardeners that earwigs are beneficial because they eat aphids, mites, and insect eggs. They also feed on rotting organic matter. Granted, these eating habits aren’t objectionable. However, they also seem to like dining on plants in the garden. This is objectionable. They damage tender garden seedlings, the leaves of various vegetables and flowers, as well as the flowers of some plants, leaving behind numerous small, irregular holes. In the orchard you can find them tunneling into ripe apples, plums, and peaches… especially near the stem end. In my garden, they particularly like to snack on the petals of my light colored petunias and dahlias. They also have the disagreeable habit of showing up indoors, where they don’t do any damage except to scare and disgust us.

Earwigs are sneaky little devils. They feed at night and during the day they hide in any handy dark, confined space, especially one that’s moist, such as under mulch, loose bark, garden debris, and garden pots. If you suspect earwigs are damaging your plants, you can go out after dark and check your plants. Once you confirm that these dastardly characters are the offending creatures, there are several control options available to you.

– If their damage isn’t significant and you can tolerate a few holes here and there, do nothing.

– Trap and dispose of the earwigs. One simple trap is a moistened rolled-up newspaper placed next to the damaged plants. Open the newspaper roll in the morning and drop the earwigs into a bucket of soapy water. Another easy trap to use is a tuna can with some fish or vegetable oil in the bottom for bait.

– If all else fails and their damage is not tolerable, there are chemical options. I prefer using an insect bait that contains carbaryl (Sevin). I apply the bait according to label directions and only use it around the plants where the earwigs are causing me problems. Sprays over the entire garden will kill other insects in the area, including bees and other beneficial insects.

If earwigs are coming indoors, one doesn’t need to worry as they don’t hurt anything and rarely (Hah!) bite. To prevent their entry, tightening up the house with caulking and weather stripping would help. You can also make the perimeter of the house less conducive to their presence by removing firewood, organic mulches, and plant material from the foundation area. They don’t favor dry areas that are clear of debris. However, I find it easier just to remove the occasional intrusive offender with a tissue and squish! That’s what I did last night.

Published: 7/15/2006 11:12 AM

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