Whenever I classify earwig scare stories as urban legends, I get some impassioned letters from readers. They want to tell me about a time when someone they know really did get a bug inside his or her ear.
Webster's New World Dictionary defines an earwig as "any of an order of widely distributed insects with short, horny forewings, a pair of forceps at the terminal end of the abdomen, and biting mouthparts." Webster's also says that earwigs are so called "from the baseless notion that (they) particularly seek out the human ear to crawl into."I regard earwigs - despite their name - as being equally as likely to enter a person's ear as ants, bees, cockroaches, centipedes, spiders or any other small creepy crawly bugs.
Sure it can happen, but I still don't believe the typical earwig horror tales:
- that earwigs can burrow from the ear into the brain and hollow out your head;
- that an earwig can go in one ear, eat its way through the gray matter, and come out the other;
- that a doctor once examined an earwig emerging from someone's ear and determined it was a female and had probably laid eggs in the victim's head.
People who send me earwig reports seem to think that just because real bugs do occasionally crawl into people's ears there may be some truth to these wild stories.
After all, isn't that why this insect is called an "earwig"? Not exactly. As an authoritative entomology text reveals, "The name is derived from an old superstition that these insects enter people's ears. This belief is entirely without foundation, as earwigs are quite harmless to man."
Try to tell that to someone who's actually had a buzzing insect inside the ear, though!
The most stomach-turning account of earwig infestation I've seen is a detailed scientifically-worded two-page photocopied "Earwig Alert" recently sent to me by Joyce deVries Kehoe of Seattle.
It's credited simply to "The Department of Health," and the only place mentioned in it is "Northern Illinois." The alert gives a graphic account of the supposed reproductive behavior of "these insidious carnivores."
I showed a copy to a biologist who assured me that carnivorous earwigs don't exist and that other details of the warning are completely erroneous.
Supposedly, earwigs require human hosts in order to reproduce. The "alert" claims that earwigs enter the ear canal, penetrate the middle and inner ear, and sever the cranial nerves of the brain.
The female earwig, the alert explains, concentrates on carving "a catacomb-like network of tunnels through the temporal and frontal recesses of brain tissue." Male earwigs locate themselves in "the posterior scleral membrane (the back of the eye)."
Eventually the earwig couples meet and mate, producing "wiglets" also called "larvalettes." These midget monsters are said to burrow backwards, feeding as they move, and constituting "pound for pound, an eating machine superior to even the great white shark."
The "Alert" contains scientific sounding references to the "vitreous body of the eye," the "reproductive enzymes" produced by male earwigs and the "mental debilitation and myopia" suffered by the hosts.
But other sections of the warning sound more like folklore than genuine medical knowledge. For example, the suggested preventative is cotton balls soaked in black-strap molasses and inserted into the ear before sleeping.
I'm sure someone with a knowledge of earwig stories plus a wild sense of humor composed this warning.
The climax of the elaborate joke is the recommended method for removing earwig larvalettes. The warning concludes that the victim should take heavy doses of vitamins with iron, which the parasites will in turn ingest.
Then larvalettes can be removed from the head by application of a 40-pound pull electromagnet. If a magnet that powerful is unavailable, "a 10 pound pull magnet applied four times should also be effective."
Patients wearing braces on their teeth or steel plates in their heads are advised to consult a specialist before trying the magnet cure.
Also, nurses checking for earwigs are advised not to inhale deeply near a patient's ear canal, since the insects can also enter the head nasally.
I wonder if I'll hear from any readers who will testify to the efficacy of the electromagnetic earwig cure.