Praying for its prey

Praying mantis a blessing for your garden

Spotting a praying mantis in your garden is a good thing. The insects are harmless to humans and eat pests that can be harmful to flowers and vegetables. They are fascinating to watch, with their large eyes and their front legs, often folded in a prayer position, used as weapons to catch prey.



Mantis eggs are protected inside an egg case, called an ootheca, that resembles a glob of brown Styrofoam. Some people collect these egg cases and put them in their garden to increase mantis populations. But don’t bring them indoors and forget about them. The young mantids frequently hatch when you least expect it, and you will end up with dozens of miniscule mantids roaming your house.



Newly hatched mantids are tiny, smaller than the nail on your little finger.



Let us give thanks that humans are much larger than praying mantids.

If a praying mantis got any larger it would be downright terrifying.

Their front legs, held in the “prayer position” that gives them their name, are actually lethal weapons. Lined with sharp spikes, they shoot out with lightning speed and snatch an unsuspecting insect, then hold its struggling body as the mantis devours it alive.

The mantis relies on these “raptorial forelegs” and its camouflage to catch its prey. It is a “sit-and-wait” predator, perching motionless and blending into the foliage until an insect wanders within grabbing distance.

In our area, mantids don’t get very large, about 4½ inches of fierceness at most. But large mantids may eat hummingbirds when they get the opportunity.

Mantids are also famous for cannibalism. A female will sometimes eat her mate, sometimes even during the mating act — but only if she is really hungry.

Don’t feel too sad for the male mantis, though. His life would have been short regardless of his mate’s appetite. Mantids live about a year at most and do not overwinter.

After mating, female mantids lay a clutch of eggs and then die. The eggs are protected in a gob of what looks like brown Styrofoam. You can find these egg masses on twigs, weed stalks and even the sides of buildings or fences.

In the spring, dozens of miniature mantids will emerge from the egg mass and head out to hunt.

Mantids are often green in color to blend in with summer leaves, but some species may be speckled grayish-brown later in the season when vegetation dries out.

As the mantids grow larger, they molt their skin. With each molt they may adjust the color of their skin to match their habitat.

Mantids are masters of disguise and can be hard to spot, especially when they are tiny. In our area they seem more common in the late summer and fall, but really they have been around since spring and have finally gotten large enough to spot easily.

If you are curious, it is easy to determine if an adult mantis is male or female. Females have a wide abdomen for producing their large egg masses, whereas males have a slender abdomen allowing them to fly more easily.

Finding a praying mantis in your garden is definitely a good thing. They are harmless to humans and eat pests.

But contrary to popular belief, mantids are not really suitable as a biological control insect. They will not naturally rid your garden of all those pesky squash bugs and hornworms.

That’s because mantids aren’t picky eaters. They’ll eat anything, beneficial insects, pests and other mantids. And because they can’t reproduce quickly, producing young just once a year, their populations can’t boom when the pest populations boom.

But a praying mantis is nice to have around simply because it is fascinating to watch. Their movements are oddly mesmerizing. With large eyes and an ability to rotate their heads 180 degrees, they seem, if not human-like, at least cartoon-alien-like.

And it’s not just modern gardeners who are fascinated by the mantis. Many ancient cultures considered them minor gods, and the word “mantis” derives from the Greek word for diviner or prophet. In China, two styles of martial arts were based on the movements of the mantis.

Next time you spot a praying mantis, take some time to watch this intriguing insect. And give thanks that it is not bigger, and that you are not a fly or whatever careless insect it’s planning on having for dinner.


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