Picture walks: A most intriguing insect

By Jeanne Church

The praying mantis is perhaps the most intriguing insect I have ever found! It is a master of camouflage, a fearsome predator and a beguiling little creature that can turn its head and stare me down!

When I first heard about the praying mantis, I wasn’t sure how to spell its name. Was it a praying mantis or a preying mantis? I was more inclined to go with “preying” because of its well-deserved reputation as a master predator! It earned the name “praying” mantis, however, because it typically stands with its forelegs folded in front of its chest in a prayer-like position. The irony is, when the praying mantis assumes this angelic pose, it is just about to grab its next victim and eat it alive.

The praying mantis uses those strong front legs to quickly and skillfully catch a variety of insects including bees, crickets, beetles, flies, and wasps. Some of the larger mantises, though, like the Chinese mantis, have been known to catch reptiles, amphibians, and birds! They have also been known to eat each other — starting at an early age.

When mantis babies first emerge from their egg casings in mid-June to early July, they scatter like mad hoping they won’t be eaten by a nearby sibling! Adult female praying mantises are also known for their cannibalistic behaviors. During the mating process, they may decide to bite off the head of their mate and then gobble down the rest of him!

There is some scientific evidence to suggest that sexual cannibalism may actually have evolutionary advantages for the praying mantis species! Without his head, the male praying mantis loses his inhibitions and continues mating, which means he can fertilize more of the female’s eggs and thus pass on more of his genetic material to the next generation! However, if he doesn’t lose his head (literally), he can go on to mate with more females, which also increases his odds for passing on his genetics. I’m guessing he’d rather do the latter!

For me, the most fascinating skill a praying mantis demonstrates is the ability to rotate its heads 180 degrees! No other insect can do this! Being able to turn its head without moving the rest of its body is a key advantage for a mantis when hunting. From a photographer’s point of view, though, having an insect turn and face my camera, is just a little bit creepy.

Worldwide, there are over 2,000 species of praying mantis. Seventeen of those species are here in North America, and only two are in Michigan; the Chinese mantis and the European mantis. Both have been here for over 100 years but neither of them is a native species.

The Chinese mantis is the largest mantis species in North America and can grow to five inches in length. It varies in color from brown to green. The European mantis grows to about four inches in length and was originally introduced to this country as a means of pest control for the spongy moth (formerly known as the gypsy moth). Historically, garden stores have aided in the spread of these invasive species by marketing them for sale to control common garden pests. Their benefit to gardeners, however, is highly questionable! A praying mantis is just as likely to eat a native pollinator like a bee or butterfly as it is to eat a pesky caterpillar.

On my slow, contemplative meanderings through the vast fields of goldenrod this time of year, I look forward to finding as many of these little creatures as I can. Their long, green and brown bodies blend in perfectly with the leaves of goldenrod and it’s always a pleasant surprise to find one!

The best time of year to go on a mantis hunt is early September through the beginning of October. On a warm fall day, the praying mantises, particularly the males, are much easier to find than earlier in the season when they are smaller and a lot less motivated to move around. By early September, they have reached full maturity and are on the hunt for love!

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