We all tried to catch them as kids, these mysterious creatures that look at you with alien eyes and that deceptively humble stance. Little did we all know that praying mantises used those reverent arms to capture prey and become the ‘preying’ mantis. Looks can be deceiving; this pious insect is actually a keen predator that can move faster than you can blink and blend into almost any situation. Preying on anything from smaller insects to larger, more formidable foes, such as lizards, snakes, small birds and even small rodents, the praying mantis only eats what it kills. Clasping its prey firmly with its strong front legs, the praying mantis will assess its catch. If the victim doesn’t struggle, the mantis will actually prefer to eat its catch alive, starting with the head; if struggling, the mantis will kill first before consuming.
Aside from its rather morbid eating habits, the praying mantis is actually a very intriguing insect. Although large on an insect scale, the praying mantis still has predator threats, and for this the mantis relies on its ability to blend into its surroundings. Based on its environment, the praying mantis is the chameleon of the insect world. Different species of praying mantises will have different camouflage methods; from backing up into the shrubs and turning its back or actually mimicking its background, the praying mantis can easily escape a predator’s eye.
Praying Mantis Identification
For those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the praying mantis, there is no mistaking its features. Generally a light green or brown color, the defining features of the mantis are its two very spiky front legs, which are generally seen in a praying position. It might appear as if a comb has been inserted onto the underbelly of these legs, but these comb-like spikes are to help ensure a firm grasp on prey. Inserting the spikes into the body of its victim, the mantis is able to keep the prey under control while consuming it alive. The main body of the mantis is extremely elongated and may resemble a peapod connected to the head by a giraffe-like neck. The head is one of the most interesting features of the mantis; a rounded triangle with eyes that take up almost ¾ of the face, the praying mantis is the only insect that can swivel its head over its shoulder. The ability to rotate its head over 300° gives the mantis a distinct advantage when surveying its surroundings and looking for prey.
Praying Mantis Habitat
Largely living in warm climates, praying mantises cover every continent except Antarctica. Tropical and subtropical areas are ideal living spaces for the praying mantis because of the constant moisture, insect life available as prey, and the lack of cold winters—and therefore the lack of food. The color and camouflage aspects of specific praying mantises will depend on the particular area of the world. Within the United States, praying mantises are found in largely green, humid areas. Spreading anywhere from the southern portions of California and living largely in the southeast portions of the United States, praying mantises find their prey in woods, meadows, prairies and home gardens.
Praying Mantis Life Cycle
Although widely known for its praying stance, this mantis is also notorious for its sexual cannibalism. Mating season begins a dangerous time for the male portion of this species. Beginning in early autumn, the males will seek out female praying mantises in order to reproduce. After the male has mounted the female and the necessary sperm has been stored in a sac located near the female’s abdomen, the female will proceed to eat the male. Some experts believe that this is to give the female the added nutrients she will need to carry the young, but there is still much debate about this widespread practice.
Once the male is disposed of, the female will lay her eggs in a glue-like substance designed to protect the eggs. Able to produce anywhere from 10 to almost 500 eggs at once, the female’s eggs are lumped together in a mass called the ootheca. This mass will ideally be secured to the underside of leaves or plant stems in an attempt to hide them from predators. When the eggs hatch, the nymph stage of the mantis will emerge. The only real difference between nymphs and adults is size and skin. The nymphs start out small, but are extremely hungry upon hatching and will consume any available food; turning to cannibalism if nothing else is available. When transforming to the adult stage, the nymph will shed its skin and replace it with the exoskeleton of the adult praying mantis. Under the best of circumstances, the adult praying mantis does not generally live more than one year.
Praying Mantis as a Pest
One might think with its predatory nature, the praying mantis would present a huge problem to humans, but it turns out that praying mantises are actually a cure for other pests. Praying mantises feed on the other insects that feed on your plants and vegetation; as a carnivore, the praying mantis will not damage your plants. In fact, it is not uncommon to find praying mantis eggs available in feed stores for people who want to purposefully introduce this insect onto their property. It is important to remember that this natural insecticide does not have a filter, and will prey on harmful as well as beneficial insects.
It is possible for these mantises to enter your home, which can transform them from a help to a hindrance. It is important to remove the praying mantis immediately when you find them, in order to prohibit mating or egg lying in your home. Spraying insect repellent around the entrance to your home via doors and windows can help deter these insects from entering in the first place. Be especially mindful of praying mantises in your home during the hottest and coldest months of the year, as they will seek shelter from extreme temperatures.