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 four and a half inches of fierceness at most. But large mantids may eat hummingbirds when they get the opportunity. Mantids are also famous for cannibalism. Females are known to eat their mates, 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 to be much more common in the late summer and fall, but really they have been around since spring. It is just that they have finally gotten large enough to spot easily. It is also 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 is 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 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 movie-alien-like. And it’s not just modern gardeners who are fascinated by the mantis. Many ancient cultures considered them 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 you are not a fly or whatever careless insect it’s planning on having for dinner.
This post originally appeared in edited for in the August 22, 2015 issue of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel http://www.gjsentinel.com