Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Bugs crawl into a person's ear, make their home there, then slowly eat their way through the brain.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, July 2009]
Origins: Regarding all the nonsense about bugs in the ear: it is patently impossible for insects and/or other arthropods to enter one ear and chew through to the other; a little logic should tell us so. (Try to trace a straight course for such a journey, without going through bone.) There are a number of flies that feed as maggots in the living tissues of vertebrates. While none seek out humans as their normal host, people are occasionally parasitized by accident. Usually their entry is through wounds, or the mucous membrane of bodily orifices. I have yet to find a reference for fly maggots in human ears. That doesn't mean it couldn't or hasn't happened, but such an infestation would be limited to soft tissue around the outer ear. (Check out any medical entomology textbook for this information: I'm going by the
Yes, insects and other arthropods do wander into people's ears, but not to lay eggs. The human ear can be an effective trap for small critters; the poor little dears simply blunder in and are trying to find their way out by frantically scratching around. The effect to the owner of the ear can be quite maddening, however. As an example, I offer a documented case of a fairly famous explorer getting a "bug in his ear" to suggest it as a possible source for the explorer part of the
John Hanning Speke, remembered for tracking down the source of the Nile River, recorded that the interior of his tent "became covered with a host of small black beetles, evidently attracted by the glimmer of the candle." Exhausted, Speke went to sleep with them crawling over his person, only to be awakened by one of the "horrid little insects" struggling into his ear. Trying to remove the beetle only pushed it in further. The beetle continued into Speke's ear as far as possible, and then "he began with exceeding vigour like a rabbit in a hole, to dig violently away at my tympanum. The queer sensation this amusing measure excited in me is past description
Speke obviously survived his ordeal, and just as obviously, the beetle didn't burrow through to the other side. The incident was given a fairly prominent place in the movie Mountains of the Moon. I know the legend predates the movie, so I'm not suggesting it as a source. The story was probably better-known to Speke's contemporaries, because of the explorer's popularity. This may have been a source for at least part of the legend.
Sticking bug-like in many people's minds is the memory of this legend forming the plot of a long-ago episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. Titled "Caterpillar," it aired on
Greatly predating Night Gallery, the Oxford English Dictionary dates the notion that an earwig penetrates into the head through the ear to as early as the year 1000.
Last updated: 12 July 2009
This material may not be reproduced without permission.
snopes and the snopes.com logo are registered service marks of snopes.com.