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An Imposing Autumn Insect.

October 15, 2011

Praying Mantis

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!

15 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2011 6:23 pm

    Great post. I enjoyed that 2nd (close-up) photo. 🙂

  2. October 15, 2011 6:32 pm

    Wonderful pictures and great info about this amazing insect!

  3. October 15, 2011 6:35 pm

    Very cool!

  4. John Northcutt Young permalink
    October 15, 2011 6:54 pm

    Great pictures and post as usual. Clicked on the link to read about the hummingbird. The praying mantis is one tough creature!

  5. October 15, 2011 8:28 pm

    Great shots Tracey and I didn’t know anything about them, but now I do thanks to you! Margie

  6. October 16, 2011 6:45 am

    It is a pleasure to look at these photographs.

  7. October 16, 2011 9:46 am

    Great post and very nice photos. Thats amazing that the Praying Mantises can catch and kill hummingbirds.

  8. October 16, 2011 11:37 am

    Great photos and information, Tracy! I only saw one praying mantis this summer and was not able to photograph him. Yikes – the hummingbird/praying mantis photos are truly shocking. I never imagined a praying mantis could eat a hummingbird. I always learn interesting things from your posts!

  9. October 16, 2011 11:47 am

    I had no idea they would attack something as big as a hummingbird. I had known they could pinch a human, but wow… very educational and the pictures are GREAT!

  10. October 17, 2011 12:46 am

    These are great shots! I really enjoy these guys. We have one presently in residence in a flower bed next to the house; a large brown one.

  11. October 17, 2011 9:40 am

    Great stuff W.S….the hummingbird deal was new to me…I knew the mantis were an aggressive lot…but not to something like a bird…I guess they will eat anything…not fussy, huh???…thanks…

  12. October 17, 2011 12:55 pm

    Great photos! I guess I have been one of those spelling the name incorrectly, thanks for pointing that out. Some one once told me about the same story as you did about their name, but in reverse.

  13. October 17, 2011 6:53 pm

    These are one of my favorite beneficial insect species. I enjoyed your post very much. I learned a few things I didn’t know. I never knew what mantis meant, or that they breed in Autumn or that the female dies soon after laying an egg sac. This is a very informative post. Your photos are lovely and show these majestic creatures at their finest.

  14. October 19, 2011 9:02 pm

    Hi. I like the second last photo best. The mantis looks a little off balance. The ‘greens’ are lovely. I didn’t know these insects are cannibals! I always learn so much from your posts. Jane

  15. October 20, 2011 12:12 pm

    congratulations on the great photos!

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