The praying mantis is a unique and fascinating insect, full of contradictions. It looks like a creature from a low-budget horror movie with its bulging eyes, spiny legs and bright green skin. Yet, its lanky forelegs rest in a pose reminiscent of a child raising hands and arms toward heaven for bedtime prayers. The praying mantis is indeed named for the praying posture of its forelegs. According to the country folklore of France, the outstretched arms of a praying mantis direct lost children to the way back home.
Most gardeners would call the praying mantis a godsend because of its voracious appetite for a host of insects which are common garden pests, including many species of beetles and moths. Crickets and grasshoppers are among its favorite foods. Honeybees are also a favorite treat, though, and most gardeners and beekeepers would prefer that the mantis leave this hardworking insect alone.
There are some 1,800 species of mantids worldwide. North America is home to twenty species of mantids, although they are not native to this continent. Praying mantises arrived in America just before the turn of the century as stowaways hiding in shipments of plants from across the ocean. A nurseryman in Philadelphia first noticed the strange-looking insects on plants that had been shipped from the Orient. Another nurseryman in Baltimore spied the creatures on plants that had been shipped from the south of France. From their first arrival at these eastern seaports, praying mantises have extended their range across many parts of the country, reaching as far north as Canada.
During the spring or summer, the young praying mantis hatches from its winter home, a papery egg case that is roughly the size of a walnut. Many a classroom has been infested with hundreds of tiny praying mantises that hatched overnight from someone's science project -- a rite of passage for science teachers. Some people keep mantises in their homes as pets to control houseflies. They can be kept in a cage with a small dish of drinking water, along with morsels of food serving as housefly bait. Since they are strictly carnivorous and prefer the taste of flying and crawling insects and spiders, mantises are no threat to houseplants. Large mantises are even capable of capturing and devouring small mice, frogs and lizards! They won't back down when threatened by an animal many times their size--even a house cat!
The praying mantis is the "stealth fighter" of insects, lying motionless and concealed by its camouflage until its prey comes within range of its powerful forelegs, which are armed with spines to impale and hold its victims. Its compound eyes are mounted on a highly mobile head that can pivot to track flying insects, like radar. Upon making instant calculations of the airspeed and flight path of an approaching insect, the mantis can instantly and with deadly accuracy snatch an insect from the sky as it flies past.
Female mantises are known for their nasty habit of eating their mates--either after or during mating. The insect's nervous system enables the male to continue mating even after the female has literally bitten his head off. While mantises can regrow limbs and antennae that are lost in battle, decapitation is always fatal. Small wonder the praying mantis spends so much of its time "praying." It's a bug-eat-bug world out there!
--Lynn Boydelatour, Interpretive Services Section Manager