We tend to think of spring and summer as primary insect seasons. Autumn however has its share of buggy activity, including a particularly noticeable species I’ve spotted recently.
This Praying Mantis is waiting for a tasty meal to come by. Luckily, I was too big to be prey!
Speaking of prey, ‘Preying Mantis’ is a common misspelling for this creature, understandable because these insects are ambush predators, meaning they suddenly spring upon their prey after sitting still and waiting patiently for a food source to come by. This conserves energy and it also means that when they strike, they move with blinding speed. The praying part of their name comes from their prayer-like posture; perhaps their Ancient Greek name ‘Mantis’ (meaning seer or prophet) is derived from this as well. In cultural lore, they are often thought of as holy or lucky symbols. Scientifically, they are grouped with termites and cockroaches. They have been around since the age of dinosaurs; several have been found dating from the Cretaceous Period, caught eternally in amber.
Praying Mantises (or Mantes or Mantids, depending on your reference source) are prominent in the autumn because they’ve been growing in size since being born in the spring; also, it is their mating season. When they hatched after winter’s end, they were in nymph form, quite small and looking like ants. The nymph grows in size, molting 5 to 10 times and changing its appearance along the way. In the autumn, they will mate, and after the female lays her egg case (called an ootheca), she will die a few weeks later. Mantises in temperate climates do not survive the winter; even tropical species typically live no more than a year. The surviving egg cases will hatch next spring, producing from 40 to 200 nymphs each to start the circle of life once more.
Mantises are known to be cannibals- nymphs may eat each other, and more famously, the female may eat her male suitor. There is some dispute about how common this behavior is, and whether laboratory observation or close scrutiny alters their natural behavior. Among certain species, if they are well-fed and undisturbed, the male may engage the female in a courtship display.
Mantises are very visually-oriented creatures- after all, their livelihood depends upon them spotting food, usually other insects (though occasionally bigger fare, such as this unfortunate hummingbird). They have compound eyes and a wide field of binocular vision, and their head is very mobile. Curiously, they have one ear, and it is tuned to the frequency that bats emit their echo-locating cries at. Mantises are normally diurnal (daytime) creatures, but they will fly at night in search of mates and to eat moths. Their finely-tuned hearing allows them to try to avoid being a bat’s meal, and they’ve been observed making a crash-dive when a bat’s cry sounds near them.
This particular individual was grooming, cleaning its spiky forearms. The forearms are used to impale and grip its prey tightly- they act as a carnivore’s teeth in that sense. A couple of hours after walking by this Mantis, I returned and saw it perched upon the same Goldenrod; it had turned to face another direction, but liked its perch enough to stay there. I wondered if butterflies were on the menu…
Here is another individual that is in the process of raising its forearms to defend itself from my camera lens. Mantises when threatened will spread their arms and display their wings so that they look as big as possible. They can pinch a human, but are otherwise harmless to us. As a matter of fact, they are very beneficial in the sense that they eat all sorts of insects that humans would rather not be bothered by. For this reason, they are often used as pest control, and are welcomed by gardeners and organic farmers. You may have seen their egg cases for sale at garden centers.
And so in conclusion, these large insects may be intimidating, but they are actually beneficial. Besides, they are simply fascinating to watch!