This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on June 8, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.
Ahhh, thinking back to the good old days of my youth when I spent summers at our bungalow on Long Island in New York, it was an unusual treat to see a Praying Mantid (Order Mantodea – Mantids, Family Mantidae). I can recall being told that it was illegal to touch or capture this insect. Now, of course, I realize that it was an urban legend (although I did double check to be sure for this article…I still believe everything my friends told me).
I was curious when I took a photo of this species whether the correct common name was PrAying or PrEying. Preliminary research tells me the common name is Praying Mantis because of their stance that makes their front legs look like they are in prayer. Further research indicates that some use “preying” since they are predatory insects. I also learned that some people prefer to call them Mantid (myself included) and regardless of your choice, the plural is generally accepted as Mantids.
Last December I found an unusual caterpillar-looking thing attached to a frond of the sago palm. I couldn’t quite figure out what the heck it was. I took pictures, examined them and kept an eye out to see if the critter starting moving around. It never did. Not having a clue where to start a search, I put research on the back burner. At some point the “thing” fell off the sago and dropped to the ground.
In January, I found a similar “thing” attached to a spent seed stalk of a native grass near the pond. Since I could clip the stalk and keep the “thing” attached, I did so and moved my find into a screened display box. I then went and searched under the sago for the original one and popped that into the rearing cage too.
I watched and waited and nothing happened. At some point, toward the end of March, I needed the display case to bring a critter to an outreach program, so I dumped out the “things” jamming the stalk into dirt in a flowerpot.
Sometime in April I was examining some Virginia Pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum) looking for caterpillar larvae. I was shocked to see the tiniest of tiny praying Mantids walking along the plant. One crawled up onto my finger.
As always, I double-checked with bugguide.net to see if they were the regular species I’ve encountered here which is the Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina). Yes, they clearly were and what do you know…on one of the photo pages there was my “THING”! WOO HOO! Mystery solved. It is a mantid’s ootheca (egg mass). I checked and saw that one of the egg cases had holes in it…and these guys must have been the babies that accordingly are born in spring.
Male Mantids are usually brown and females can be green or brown and this may be so they can blend in with their environment. While they are considered beneficial, they do not differentiate between good and bad bugs. While true bugs and caterpillars are eaten, they also consume pollinators such as butterflies, moths, flies, small wasps and bees. In the nymph stage they are especially beneficial since they eat aphids and other small insects. They have been known to eat each other if there isn’t enough of an insect supply handy.
While insects are their primary diet, Mantids are not above eating anything they grab and hold with those front claws. They will prey upon any species small enough to be successfully captured and devoured including lizards, frogs, snakes, fish and rodents (I can only “pray”). There is photo documentation of a praying mantis that was eating a hummingbird (WARNING: not for the feint of heart).
They have their place in the food chain, enjoyed by spiders, birds, frogs, snakes and especially bats. They stay very still hiding in plants so you may not spot them too frequently. However, the praying mantis is the only insect that can rotate its alien-like head almost completely around! So they’ll be able to spot you from any direction. Welcome this mostly beneficial to your garden with open arms.