In our series about people with a passion for a species, we ask TV presenter Martin Hughes-Games why he cares so much about the common earwig.
Why TV presenter Martin Hughes-Games has a soft spot for the common earwig
Why are you passionate about earwigs?
Many years ago, I bought The Natural History of the Garden by Michael Chinery. In this wonderful book, the author gives a very informative and affectionate account of British earwigs. It came as a surprise to me that anyone could be fond of these insects. Inspired by Chinery, I was determined to find out more about them and became passionate about earwigs, too. Why champion an insect? The very latest scientific research has shown that insect numbers are crashing all around the world. This is a terrifying prospect because they are critical to a vast number of ecosystems, providing food for a host of larger animals. If they disappear, the impact will be catastrophic. We need to be more aware of their importance. I hate the fact that so many people only like ‘cute’ animals.
Where does the common earwig’s name come from?
Earwigs have the word ‘ear’ in their name in many different languages. These insects show thigmotaxis (they respond to touch stimuli), meaning they tend to stop moving when they feel their bodies in contact with the substrate above and below them. This helps them to recognise if they are in a protective environment, such as under a stone. Due to this behaviour, earwigs have occasionally crawled into a human ear while searching for a safe place to rest.
Have you ever filmed earwigs?
I made a 30-minute documentary that followed the life of a single female. It was one of my most enjoyable TV experiences because we created a magical world in an allotment in Bristol. My friend Chris Timmins managed, by careful experimentation, to get an earwig to open its wings for us on camera. They were extraordinary – shimmering iridescent colours, fantastically thin and wondrously folded. Earwigs belong to the Dermaptera order, meaning ‘skin wings’ – it’s a perfect description of what we observed.
Why are females excellent mothers?
They spend the winter protecting between 20 and 40 eggs in a small cavity. In my earwig film, we captured a female attacking a pseudoscorpion that had entered her nest. To our amazement, she killed it using her pincers. Female earwigs gather their eggs together if they are disturbed, lick them to prevent fungal infection, and feed their offspring mouth to mouth – exceptional behaviour in the insect world.
Why do earwigs have pincers on the tip of their abdomens?
These are defensive structures. You can easily tell the difference between a male and female earwig by looking at their pincers – the male’s are curved like a pair of garden sickles ( below, left) whereas the female’s are straight and meet down the middle.
How many species are there?
The UK has four species of earwig – we used to have five but the tawny earwig, found in sandy habitats, is probably extinct. I dream of fame and glory by rediscovering a colony. Don’t tell anyone but I devote a lot of my holiday time to searching. As with so many creatures, once you start to delve into the lives of earwigs, you become addicted and fascinated. Jo Price
I’ve filmed a female earwig killing a nest intruder with her pincers. It was amazing!