Entomology is the study of insects, and no insect is more interesting than the preying mantis. The insect Preying Mantis is an ancient specie, it has been around since the Cretaceous period. Today’s mantises still prey upon other insects be they pest, neutral or beneficial ones as well as occasionally taking small frogs, snakes, bees, lizards and surprisingly, even small rodents!
Insect Glamor Shot, the Modest Preying Mantis!
Mantises can and probably will bite you if you pick them up and cause them distress, but they have no venom and their bite isnot painful. It is more of an attempt to chew you than an actual ‘bite.’ But still, it can be rather startling! Their grasping arms are probably more distressing for you if they grab a hold of your fingers the right way. Their raptor-like arms are quite powerful and have sharp spikes for grasping & holding prey items. For the most part though unless you are really upsetting a mantis, they seem outwardly at least, not too bothered about being picked up, held or carried.
Close-Up View of the Preying Mantis
Mantises rely heavily upon their acute binocular vision to locate their prey. An ambush predator mainly, but some species actually pursue their prey. They are mostly diurnal, -day dwellers, while some species do fly at night. They all have specialized forelimbs that aid in seizing and holding their captured quarry while they begin to eat it, still alive. Their protothorax, the elongated and flexible section of body between their abdomen and their head, allows for a much greater range of movement of their forelimbs while the remainder of their body can remain nearly motionless.
When flying at night there is the risk of being preyed upon by bats. Like some moths, several species of mantis can detect the echolocation of an approaching bat and as a defensive measure they will cease their flight and spiral rapidly towards the ground in an effort to evade the approaching bat. Spinning or looping can further confuse and evade the bat until the bat loses tracking location of the prey. Or, the prey lands upon the ground, now safe from the bat.
Close-up of the Preying Mantis Face
Camouflage is essential for the mantis, not only to catch prey but to avoid being eaten themselves. Birds and mammals and even other insects like wasps will eat a mantis if they find one and can overpower it. Some specialized mantises mimic leaves and branches to further blend into their surroundings. A few species of mantises in Africa and Australia have adapted a unique ability to change their color to match a scorched earth. After a brush or grass fire, the next molt (shedding of their exoskeleton) reveals a new darker coloration to match the new landscape. This is called ‘fire melanism,’ the ability to alter their color after a habitat fire changes their landscape. They will briefly adapt to the changed local ground until grasses and bushes return, when their color comes back with the next molt.
Close-up Preying Mantis in Profile
The sexual cannibalism act of the female biting off the head of the male during mating and upon completion of the reproductive act eating of the male’s body has been suggested to be a strategy to give the female much needed protein for the task of producing the fertile egg-case she will soon lay. But it is suggested now that this behavior, which is mostly observed under the ‘controlled conditions’ of the laboratory, may be in part somewhat stress-related. Mantises are keenly aware of their surroundings and under conditions of captivity, the lights used for filming them and the movements of the researchers watching them, may be a distraction and a stress factor. Any movement is acutely noticed and may be tainting the witnessed results. It may be a far rarer thing for sexual cannibalism in the wild than in captivity! This dichotomy of observed actions in some mantises remains quite controversial and researchers are trying to observe the frequency of sexual cannibalism in the wild to establish some baseline for either hypothesis.
Wikipedia cites research by Liske and Davis in 1978 and research of other using similar methods that using video recorder in vacant rooms yielded different behavior than if the researchers were present in the room. Chinese mantises when well-fed and male/female couples are introduced don’t ‘just begin’ mating but partake of a courtship dance which is postulated to stimulate the reproductive urge while suppressing the feeding instinct. This is similar to the documented action of the male Black Widow spider. He has ‘woo’ the female partner into a trance-like state, in her own web, and tie her down with strands of web before coitus begins. And even then, these strands of his web are no match for she could easily break them and overtake the much smaller male. It is partially the act of being tied-down that sedates her, and allows for mating.
Similar courtship dances in other mantis species in other experiments have shown courtship dances between the genders as well, but not in all species. Some may in fact not dance at all. Or there may be some other reason due to their captivity that is dismissed in the ones that do ‘dance.’ Captivity being the most unnatural state that any creature can experience, the very act of being captive might in fact skew any data or otherwise ‘natural behavior’ being observed.
Preying Mantis Catches and Eats a Live Mouse!
An Egg Case of a Preying Mantis
The egg case of a mantis can contain between 10 to 400 eggs, which varies by specie. The frothy mass contains the eggs and it hardens into a dry, hard flaky capsule which protects the eggs and maintains humidity while they mature. Many garden centers will sell hundreds or thousands of collected mantis egg cases for gardening enthusiasts to place in and around their flowerbed and vegetable patches tohatch out. Natural, pesticide-free insect control being the goal and intent. But a mantis will eat any insect, -pest, non-harmful and even beneficial insects like bees, ladybugs and even other mantises. Whatever they can catch, they will eat. Myself, I just adore preying mantises and unless there is a risk of them eating the cat or scaring away the mailman would want them around no matter what ‘good’ or ‘harm’ they do.
Most mantis species do not protect the egg cases once laid. They deposit the egg case and move on, but a few species hang around and protect the egg case from predators. Some species of parasitic wasps that will raid the egg case for food or a place to lay their own eggs, which then feed upon the developing eggs or mantis nymphs.
Last Summer’s Preying Mantis Egg Case
An old egg case the previous year lies under a coating of winter ice, possibly waiting for the spring. Or maybe it is an old one that hatched its load of baby mantises last season? We won’t know until springtime.
Pink Preying Mantis
Mantises come is many varied sizes, shapes and colors to help them in their bid for survival. There are some 20 different species of preying mantises native to the United States, and only one native to Canada. The Chinese mantis and the European mantis were non-native species introduced as natural biological pest control, and have spread to both Canada and the U.S. In the United States under the Non-Native Invasive Species Act of 1992 it is illegal to release some cited species of mantises into the wild. Yes, there is a market for exotic mantises in the pet trade. Specimens brought in from countries and regions such as Africa and Asia are bred privately for captivity and not intended for release, but are available in the exotic pet trade.
Orange Preying Mantis
Tropical species of mantises have a lifespan of perhaps 10 to 12 months, and other species kept in captive have been known to live for up to 14 months. In the regions where winter turns cold, wild mantises will perish as they do not survive the winter at any age. Only their egg cases remain for the following spring hatch.
Most mantises when they hatch resemble the adult in general shape, but sometimes not coloration. Some tend to look more like black or dark ants which might give them a survival edge as many ants are either unpalatable or even toxic and are not actively sought as a prey item by many predators. As they age and grow larger and their prey items changes, each successive molt changes their coloration until the reach maturity, when they take the color and the form typical of their species.
A Preying Mantis On The Hedge
Preying mantises in North America are not considered threatened nor endangered and can be kept as pets. In certain parts of the world however, habitat destruction is placing a threat against the local mantis species. A non-native specie insect, the European mantis is the official State Insect of the Connecticut. Usually, a ‘state flower, bird, mammal or insect’ is considered ‘protected’ due to this singular distinction but the General Statutes of Connecticut does not name this insect as ‘protected’ because it is a non-native specie.
While this exclusion from protection of a state insect sounds callous, it is not. These statutes are for protecting “native” flora and fauna of the state and not designed to apply to naturalized (non-native) species. And of course, they are not endangered being the bigger reason for their exclusion from this list of protected species.