Can Earwigs Fly? (OMG, What??)

  • 6 min read
  • Insects
Can Earwigs Fly?

A number of myths about earwigs abound, one of them being the question of whether they can fly. Keep reading because we’re here to answer that for you.

Around the world there are over 2,000 different species of earwig living on every continent apart from Antarctica. Despite their numbers and geographical spread, seeing one in flight is a rare experience.

Earwigs can fly even if the infrequency of them doing so suggests they may be reluctant to do it. They have extraordinary wings that are made of a delicate membrane.

Earwigs’ appearance and habits

The broad range of species means there is notable variation within the earwig family. The body is always long, narrow and somewhat flattened with adult sizes ranging from 0.25 to 2 inches (0.5 to 5 cm).

Coloring varies between light brown, rust and black and almost all species possess a pair of formidable forceps at the end of their long abdomens.

Unlike many non-social insects, earwigs care for their offspring. Mothers preen and reposition their eggs to remove fungi, maintain sufficient warmth and protect them from predators.

Earwigs’ wings

Even if it’s true that earwigs tend to keep their wings under wraps, it’s not as though those wings aren’t worth seeing: theirs are truly extraordinary. Made of a relatively delicate membrane, they are usually folded under, and protected by, special wing cases called elytra.

These elytra are a type of hardened forewing that reduces the likelihood of the true wings becoming dirty or damaged.

When earwigs’ wings are opened up to full size before the flight they take up an astounding ten times as much space as when packed away. The wings’ impressive expansion in size coupled with their iridescence and partial transparency make them quite the sight for those drawn to the beauty of nature.

Can Earwigs Fly
Can Earwigs Fly?

Do earwigs crawl in your ears?

In fact, whilst we’re about it, we’d like to take this opportunity to dispel another myth – perhaps the most widespread one – about earwigs: they do not crawl inside people’s ears!

Many people believe that earwigs are so named because one of their preferred environments is the ear canal of a human or other similar-sized animal. Whilst it is a possibility that they were named for that reason, we prefer the theory of other linguists: that the creatures were given that name because their unfolded wings somewhat resemble the shape of a human ear.

That issue remains open for debate. However, even if it’s true the name derives from the belief that earwigs behave in that way, it is most definitely not true that an earwig will seek out your ear – or that of any one you know – as a place to sleep or lay eggs or a route to your brain!

Are earwigs dangerous?

Now we’ve laid that falsehood to rest, we’d also like to make clear that it’s unlikely you’re going to find yourself under attack from an earwig.

As they are most often scavengers rather than hunters, earwigs usually only fight as a defensive action, particularly against animals many times their size, such as humans.

When they do feel the need to engage in combat, earwigs are prone to using their muscular and flexible abdomen to maneuver the powerful forceps at the end of their bodies into the best position.

These forceps pack quite some force relative to the size of the insect, but in absolute terms, they wouldn’t cause you much lasting damage.

If an earwig used its forceps on your fingertip (something that’s only likely to occur if you’ve picked it up, remember!) the skin would probably be pierced but there isn’t much chance of bleeding.

The level of pain would be similar to a pin being pushed into your skin to a depth of around 3 mm (1/8th in).

So, don’t trouble them and they almost definitely will not trouble you! If they do, perhaps it’s your fault because you’ve disturbed them!

A word of warning: the force of the clamping action is great enough to mean you may be unable to quickly prize the forceps open once the earwig has sunk them into your flesh.

If you find yourself in this situation, don’t panic and kill the earwig as you will have taken its life for no reason – the forceps will remain embedded and sometimes tighten in reaction to the earwig’s death.

The takeaway message here is: try not to provoke, pick up and then get nipped by an earwig. If it does happen, don’t kill it – wait until you’re able to get something such as a cocktail stick to lever the forceps apart.

Wing mechanics

It is worth returning to the subject of earwigs’ amazing wings. As we touched upon earlier, they are a real feat of biomechanical engineering.

A team of mechanical engineers at Purdue University found that the capacity of the wings to fold into the small space encased by their hardened forewings is only made possible by them being able to fold in ways that cannot be achieved using origami.

Their research revealed that the earwig’s wings are able to fold and unfold without muscular action – think of a hypothetical self-assembling umbrella.

In much the way that umbrella is then able to lock itself in position and remain open to protect the bearer, earwigs’ wings are capable of remaining locked in the open position while being used.

This means the insect does not need to expend energy using its muscles to hold the wing open.

The wings incorporate a number of unusual adaptations, including variable rigidity, hyper-rotational joints, and a capacity to change shape whilst in use. These features act in combination with curved folds that harness forces in ways that straight ones do not.

As with many other natural phenomena, scientists and engineers are taking inspiration and learning from the configuration of earwigs’ wings to develop new technologies.

This means there is a genuine possibility that future modes of transport or air sports such as hang-gliding could be moved forward by using wings modeled on those of the humble earwig.

Other potential applications include fast-assembly solar panels, pop-up tents, and miniature electronics.

There are many exciting possibilities – we’ll keep our ears to the ground and let you know!

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Adrian Volenik

I've lived around animals my whole life and I hold a Diploma in Animal Physiology. When I'm not reading or writing about wild animals, health and fitness, and technology, you can find me playing with my son and two cats. My pastimes include running, playing video games, and solving the NY Times crossword.