Praying mantis history
Whether you spell it praying or preying, (although praying is correct) both descriptive terms fit this stealthy hunter of the insect world. The praying mantis belongs to a large superorder of insects, Dictyoptera, that includes the cockroach and termites. Its grasping front legs shoot out to grasp its unwary victim faster than a human eye can follow. There are about 2,400 species and 15 families of mantids that are found on every continent except Antarctica and they are a very ancient creature with specimens preserved in amber that are estimated to be about 135 million years old.
A number of early peoples thought highly of the mantis. The Chinese believed they represented courage and emulated them when waging war. They said during war, 'one should strike fast and without hesitation', just like the insect does. The ancient Greeks felt they represented wisdom and the proper Latin name, Mantodea is from the Greek: mantis meaning 'prophet' and eidos meaning 'form or type'. Some African cultures worshiped them as gods, but the Australian bushmen feared them and avoided any area where they were seen. There are also some modern, New Age believers who say that the praying mantis is a symbol of patience and balance, because that is how they go about their lives. Some people even keep them as pets.
Praying mantis habits and life
The praying mantis is a very effective ambush predator. It waits motionless and unnoticed on a plant until an unsuspecting victim happens by and then it strikes faster than the blink of an eye. The spines on its raptor-like forelegs hold the prey almost like velcro while the mantis bites off the head in a very zombie-like act. Actually, this habit of going for the head first is smart. Eliminate the brain and any teeth the victim may turn upon it, and the rest of the meal can be consumed at its leisure. This even applies to male suitors who mate with the females. Depending on how hungry she is, she often has an after-coitus snack on the bridegroom. Praying mantids are non-selective and even cannibalistic hunters. They feast on beetles, aphids, grasshoppers and flies, which is helpful to the gardener. However they also like honeybees, butterflies and other beneficial insects, including each other
. One of the first meals a just-hatched praying mantis consumes is most likely a sibling. They are fearless hunters and often prey on creatures much larger. There are a number of factual accounts of mantids catching hummingbirds. They have also been known to catch lizards, frogs, other small birds and the occasional tiny fish. However, it isn't all fun and games for the praying mantis, because lizards, frogs and birds also consider it a tasty meal and the hunter becomes the hunted. Do not worry too much about the praying mantis affecting the beneficial insect population. While they may catch the occasional honeybee or butterfly, there are more grasshoppers and beetles in the average garden and they will statistically be the most frequent victims.
Attract the praying mantis to your garden
While the praying mantis is not actually attracted to any specific species of plant, you can encourage them in your garden a number of ways. First of all, a healthy insect population will attract predators. This means limiting chemical pesticides as much as possible. The more insect activity, the more predators. I have seen praying mantids stalking potential meals on annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees and vegetable plants. They go where the activity is highest. I welcome them on my herbs and vegetables because I definitely do not use chemicals on plants that I plant to eat. Female mantids prefer shrubbery when they lay their eggs, so having a selection of woody plants for them to choose from is also a good idea. There is only one generation a year and the female lays her eggs in the fall and the egg case is often attached to a twig or branch. The young hatch in the spring for the next generation. If you've tried and failed to attract mantids to your garden, there are several on-line sources where egg cases can be purchased. Raising praying mantids indoors is tricky, so if you purchase egg cases, leave them in your garden for them to hatch naturally. Make sure there is plenty of ground cover and even a shallow source of water, because even though they eat juicy insects, they do occasionally like a drink.
Is the praying mantis dangerous?
Some people are afraid of the praying mantis because they look so fierce. If provoked, it will rear up on its hind legs and wave its forelegs in an aggressive manner. Some species display their wings and even hiss. This is all for show. A praying mantis is not dangerous. It can bite, but it is not venomous and the bite is no more than a pinch, it can also grab a finger with its powerful forelegs. If not provoked, it will calmly walk on to your hand and sit there. Its large eyes can see very well and it can turn its neck 180 degrees, so it has a spooky, intelligent, even alien demeanor. Just enjoy them and let them go about their business wherever you find them. They are good for the ecosystem and help provide balance in the garden.