Doing PR for the earwig

AN almost superstitious tremor forbids me to welcome the winds of autumn with quite the enthusiasm that I feel

AN almost superstitious tremor forbids me to welcome the winds of autumn with quite the enthusiasm that I feel. After a few peaceful years without a really worrying storm, why not just lie low and hope the bad gales continue to veer away to this side or that; why speak the wind's name at all?

Yet there was a real exhilaration when the gusts sprang up last week, buffering my face and pumping oxygen into my lungs. The dancing trees, the flinging birds, the waves of silver in the meadow grass brought the landscape to life and me along with it: Connacht has been too quiet for too long.

Double glazing is a mixed blessing. It takes a lot of the angst out of Force Ten gusts when their roar is muffled and the glass no longer flexes like a sail. We sleep better for not being jerked awake by every squall of rain from the ocean.

But something has been lost from our lives. I enjoyed the everyday sough of wind around the walls, the rumble of sea, the bird song: it made us part of a wider world. Now, at any promising sunrise, I go around opening windows to let nature back into the house.


Two exceptional summers have shown, almost awesomely, what sunshine and gentle breezes can do for the vegetation of the supposedly "wild" west. A young lime sapling, spreading itself in such innocent, ample symmetry at the heart of the acre has no idea that the Mayo coast really does not allow this sort of thing. A sweet chestnut, sprouted from a Christmas nut and now a proud 10 feet high, is also flourishing in a borrowed clime.

Our little apple trees have been bowed under the weight of fruit - but now the wind exacts a reckoning, blowing half the crop down in a night. Total neglect of the corner we call the orchard has provided a thick, soft under growth of vetches, woundwort and other wild herbage: a cushion for the windfalls.

For fruit from trees that have never been sprayed, tar washed or grease banded, the apples are in remarkably fine shape. It would be good to give the credit to the "organic" virtue of doing nothing, so that natural predators are left to fight it out with apple sawfly, weevils, capsids and the rest. But the truth has more to do, I'm sure, with the scarcity of apple trees on this side of the hill.

The hollow round the stalk of the apple as it hangs from the tree is a favourite resting cup for the earwig, which likes to press its skin against something smooth. There are, indeed, instances of earwigs in ears, but some authorities insist the name was originally "arsewig", suggesting more subtle discomforts.

"You have more nicknames than legs," began Norman MacCaig's poem on the earwig, going on to quote "clipshears" and the Scottish "hornie goloch". My own favourite is the Middle English dialect word, "arrawiggle", offered by the Shorter Oxford.

Forficula auricularia, the common earwig of these islands, has undergone something of a rehabilitation since its amber beauty on BBC's Wildlife On One encouraged people to actually look at the creature, instead of lashing out with something heavy.

THIS is the time of year when an earwig may take us by surprise, descending from a vase of dahlias (it likes the rolled up petals, to hide in as well as to eat), or emerging from a shirt one has unpegged from the line. It is also a regular in the gardener's kitchen sink, evicted from cauliflowers or celery.

A first reaction, to wash it down the plughole, may be halted by the knowledge that an earwig is completely waterproof, its body armour coated in wax, so that it can survive hours of total immersion. Yet it actually has great aversion to dampness and chooses to spend winter in places too paper dry for fungus to flourish: a hollow stem, a seed capsule.

Two special characteristics of the earwig are a gift to any entomological Saatchi and Saatchi, concerned to improve the insect's image.

Its order is Dermaptera (derma, skin; pteron, a wing), and stowed away about its person are a pair of large, fan shaped hindwings, quite as glittering, diaphanous and delicately veined as those of a dragon fly. The common earwig (there are others) seldom if ever flies, not least because the wings are folded and refolded into about 40 thicknesses, so that it may have to use its pincers to spread them out or pack them away again.

The second charming thing about earwigs is that the female (straightish pincers at the hind end, whereas the male's are strongly curved) is a touchingly protective and conscientious mother.

Over the past few weeks, pairs of earwigs have been mating and building nests in the soil. Once the female has laid her eggs - perhaps 40 or 50 of them - she evicts her mate unceremoniously and seals herself in. She broods over her eggs like a hen, regularly cleaning them one by one to prevent attacks by fungus or mites. If a gardener should stick in a fork and scatter the eggs, she will collect them all up again.

She sticks to her post right through the winter, living off food reserves in her body. When the eggs hatch in spring, she forages for her babies (earwigs are great scavengers) and keeps them with her until they are able to fend for themselves. Then they venture abroad in family parties to be snapped up by robins, wrens, blackbirds, starlings . . . Such is the harsh accountancy of predators and prey.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author