By Richard Gambino
Last summer, I stepped out of my house and saw a praying mantis, not hiding camouflaged in leaves as they usually are, but out in the open, sitting in the sun on a limb. He tuned his head (yes, they can do that), looked me right in the eye with his two big compound eyes at the top corners of his triangular face, and seemed to be posing for me, as if he knew that nature photography is my hobby.
So, I ran inside and got a camera to get some great photos of him. All the while I photographed him, I had to keep moving backward fast — he must have seen himself in the lens, and thinking another mantis was challenging him, he charged me, ready to fight to the death, and then make a meal of the challenger.
You see, despite one of its names, Mantis Religiosa, the mantis is a deadly killer, even eating others of its own kind if other food is not present. “Other food” includes just about any and all kinds of insects and bugs, including mosquitoes, biting flies, and deer ticks that carry Lyme Disease. (One of my favorite videos on YouTube is of a mantis making a snack of a deer tick.) In fact, the praying mantis is so voracious that I think a better name for the species would be “prEying mantis.” But it doesn’t eat any plants, or bite humans or our pets — unless your pet happens to be a green fly.
A mantis sits absolutely still among leaves, blending with them, and waits for a critter to come into its area. Its waiting posture gives it its name. It holds its two powerful front limbs up in the manner a of person in prayer, with its two phenomenally strong “claws,” looking like very thin lobster claws, bent downward.
When some creature comes nearby, with lightning-like speed the mantis grabs it, and starts chewing it as a meal, with jaws not set up and down, like ours, but side by side. If the victim makes too much of a fuss, the mantis will eat its head first, then settle down to a peaceful meal of the rest of the unfortunate prey.
The mantis is so powerful that it occasionally eats much larger creatures, e.g., humming birds and toads. And the species has its own resolution to the age-old battle of the sexes. After mating, and sometimes while mating, the female eats the male — all of him. (If instead of growing to four inches, the mantis grew to four feet, it would eat us.)
The good news is that local gardening centers sell inexpensive cartons of small praying mantis egg sacs, each containing hundreds of eggs. People can put the sacs on plants (not on the ground) on their property to control mosquitoes, biting flies and ticks. Two caveats: 1. Praying mantises also eat insects and bugs that are beneficial to us, e.g., ladybugs, bees and spiders. 2. Don’t keep the egg sacs in your home. The eggs can hatch, and you will spend the season trying to find and capture hundreds of elusive tiny mantids, which would rather be outdoors catching mosquitoes and such. But fear not — they won’t eat you, unless you become too bugged or buggy about it.
RICHARD GAMBINO is forever amazed by nature.