The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Praying Mantises Are Ferocious Insects
by Ro Wauer

Although most sightings of mantises are of individuals either walking along a branch or standing very still, hardly noticeable at all. But I recently photographed one that had just captured a butterfly and was in the process of consuming all the body parts. The butterfly wings soon fell away, and the mantis finished up its butterfly meal. It was a larger than normal mantis with green wings and banded arms. According to my insect field guide, Kaufman’s “Field Guide to Insects of North America,” it was a female Carolina mantis, one of 20 mantis species that occurs in North America.

Mantises, along with bees, mosquitoes, ants, butterflies, and moths, are one of our best known insects. This probably is mostly due to its typical praying stance and its very distinct, almost grotesque, features: extremely long, snakelike body, triangular head with huge, bulging eyes, and powerful, angular forelegs, armed with strong spines and fitted for grasping prey. Few other insects, when magnified a hundred times, could look so scary.

Although mantises rarely fly, they are able to do so very well. And they seem to be attracted to lights at night, probably to search for prey that has also been attracted to the lights. They have been found many stores high on lighted buildings in our cities.

Mantises give the appearance of praying as they wait for passing prey species, which can range from insects of all kinds and sizes, including other mantises, to surprisingly large animals. There even are records of mantises capturing and eating hummingbirds. Mantises normally are very slow in their movements, but they are extremely swift in reaching out and grabbing prey species that they usually kill with a bite to the neck, severing nerves and leaving them helpless.

Another reason that praying mantises are so intriguing is their ability to look over their shoulders, behavior not normally associated with insects. Mantises overwinter in the egg stage. In fall, the female deposits foamy masses of up to 200 eggs on a twig; the mass quickly hardens into a waterproof, walnut-sized egg case. The eggs hatch the following April or May, and the little mantises drop down and scamper off. Those that remain nearby are often eaten by their larger siblings.

Full-grown mantises may be one-half to six inches in length, depending upon the species. Our native Carolina mantis averages about two inches, the pale green European mantis is also about two inches, but the exotic Chinese mantis is about four inches in length. The most common mantis in the United States, however, is the nonnative Oriental mantis, which can reach six inches.

Some mantises are kept as pets, although each must be kept in a separate cage because of its habit of eating other mantises. They can be fed insects, such as mealworms, pieces of raw beef, apple, potato, and other raw vegetables. They will soon learn to take food from your fingers, and they will eagerly sip water from a spoon. Mantises make very strange but fascinating pets!

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