(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 13, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
If there was no such thing as the Praying Mantis, coming up with the idea of one would test the limits of most people's imagination. These are truly bizarre and wonderful creatures that are not only fascinating to look at and watch, but are one of the best predators in the garden. The following article is about these amazing insects and my experiences with them in my own garden.
When I first began to look into Mantises to write this article for Davesgarden, I thought perhaps there were a dozen or so species of Praying Mantis, though I really only have seen two or three myself. Well, I was only off by 2,180... approximately; give or take 100 or so. There are praying mantises all over the world and thousands of them in the tropics I will never get to see other than what is available to look at on the internet (see several great links below). As bizarre as my backyard friends are, there are far more incredible and bizarre mantids out there in the rest of the world. This article will NOT be about them.
The term praying mantis refers to their unusual front leg formation that makes these violent garden predators look like they are peacefully praying. Often their name is misspelled as preying mantis, and I have to admit I did not initially know which way was correct, as both spellings seem apt. These unique forelegs are referred to as ‘raptorial' (raptor-like) and are very well adapted to grasping and manipulating prey. I surprised a large female by my front door once and after grabbing her I was immediately aware of a painful pinching feeling around my little finger. Thinking this creature was biting me, I was surprised to see this little insect actually grasping my finger in her ‘claws' tightly enough to hurt (though once I calmed down, I realized it was not that painful... more a surprising than anything else). She refused to let go, too, so I had to wait for her release.
photo by melody (left)
Praying mantises (or mantids) have a habit of hanging about upside down a lot. I suppose that is because they are usually hanging from a leaf or flower, waiting for prey, and that is a less exposed position to wait in. Their heads are amazing mobile, though, and can almost twist one hundred eighty degrees, as I notice over and over again when I come upon one and they try to stare me down. Most insects don't seem to be that aware of me unless I get really close to them, and I suppose their eye sights are more designed to be focused on plant or flower color and close movement of predators. But these mantises seem to see me from a distance and watch me move about the yard. So I suspect they see flying insects coming towards them a long way off, too. They stay amazingly still and wait very patiently, often well camouflaged in the foliage. I rarely see these guys before they see me, and the primary method I inadvertently use to discover them is while watering (they either try to run off, or they get washed off a plant and struggle to climb back up again, exposing themselves to me). These are not a ‘chase-them-down' type of predator. When they do move, they tend to move cautiously and jerkily, a bit like a leaf or twig in the breeze (unless they are fleeing from me... then they can really take off). These are professional ambushers.
Hiding in a clump of Caesalpinia flowers, waiting for bees; Hiding under a palm, waiting for whatever
praying mantis turning head (photo jenbrink); these little guys are hard to sneak up on
In the late spring I see sometimes dozens of these little creatures, no bigger than a penny, in certain areas of the yard (seemingly always the same areas). But most of the spring and summer goes by with very few sightings, relative to what I see in the fall. By autumn, most of the mantids are large and perhaps desperate to eat a lot, mate, lay eggs and die. So that is when I see these amazing insects the most. It is mid-October right now here in Southern California and there are praying mantises all over the yard. The prime spot to hang out appears to be by our front door where the light is on all night attracting all sorts of insects. This is where I usually find two to three of these creatures, and this is where I always see them mating (not shy- right out in plain view for all to see who walk by or come to the door). And that is where I see the carnage, year after year, of yet another headless, skinny male sitting on the back of the female for a day or so, until I guess he either just falls off, or she finally extracts his gripping feet from her body. From what I read, not all praying mantises are cannibalistic, but these California Mantids (Stagmomantis californica) certainly are.
Praying mantis hanging about the night light in front of my door
last year (left) and last week (right)- both scenes next to front door
skinnier male on female as his rump 'looks' for hers (left); finally he curls around and finds her (right)
aftermath (last year- left) and same result this year (right)- ouch!
This photo (by tardis) shows Carolina mantids mating- no disastrous aftermath with this species (at least not every time)
The local mantids here come in a variety of colors, from grey, to tan, to blue-green but with the most being a medium pale green to lime green. I have purchased egg cases at the local nurseries, but they look very different from the ones I see about the yard. These nursery mantises are Chinese Praying Mantises (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis) and they are a long, thin, brown with light green wings, and so far, have yet to successfully reproduce in my yard (at least I have not seen their egg cases yet). Supposedly Carolina Mantises (Stagmomantis carolina) can be found in California, too.
Chinese mantid I grew up from egg case purchased at local nursery
photos of Calorina Mantids (photo on left by Magpye; on right by htop)
photos of European Mantids (Mantis religiosa ) left photo begoniacrazii; right by timmijo
Egg cases are produced and somehow stuck to just about any flatish surface from a stem or leaf, to the overhangs of our house or steps. I watch these cases carefully and many seem to just sit there for years with little obvious activity. Yet I see the babies in the spring so at least some of these cases hold viable eggs. Mantids are not necessarily wise in their choice of egg case location, and sometimes the cases are simply too exposed over our long, wet winters to survive to spring (my theory, not necessarily the truth).
female California Mantid just laid this sack on Hibiscus (left); egg sack above my front door on overhang... did not see either of these egg sacks produce any baby mantises
egg sack of Carolina Mantis (left- photo LousianaMark); egg sack from nursery (Chinese Mantis)- right
Though these are efficient predators and can effectively take care of multiple insects a day, they are not, despite the common belief, effective biological controls for bad bugs in the garden. I do not mean to say one should not encourage their presence in the garden, as they are really great ornamental and fascinating insects. But buying mantid egg cases, often available at local nurseries, will probably do little to impact your bug problems in your yard. The primary bugs I have that need control (biologic or otherwise) of are mealy bugs, scale, snails, slugs and grasshoppers. Yet the main insects my primary garden predators (mantids and spiders) seem to be consuming are flies, bees, wasps, moths, other spiders , lacewings and smaller mantids. Lacewings and spiders are other nice garden predators but I do not think a bug's profession interests the mantid menu choices. They are totally opportunistic. From what I have read, bees might be their favorite diet, which is too bad as the bee situation is already touchy with all the environmental toxin build ups, and the fungal/viral mass die-offs. Still, my yard seems to be full of bees, and that may be why I have so many mantids every year. And every once in a while I catch one with a grasshopper in its grip, so there is good along with the bad.
Lacewings often hang out by my front door, too... and get eaten my mantids
These are two other major predatory garden creatures (Black Widow on left and Wolf Spider on right)... sometimes also get eaten by mantids
I have no problems with mantids eating flies, but flies are not really big pests in my garden
These are the bugs I WANT the mantids to eat, and fortunately they often do
moths and butterflies are also common prey for praying mantises in my yard- pests... but not serious ones
Sadly these seem to one of my mantid's favorite foods
For more on Praying Mantises, and for lots of great photos of other species, check out these following links.
Miscellaneous shots of mantids about my yard