Mantises, praying and preying

Praying mantis                                             LadyDragonflyCC/Flickr

Praying mantis                                             LadyDragonflyCC/Flickr

Peering into the tangled depths of your plants, you may find a curious creature craning its head around to peer at you..

I found one in the potted nasturtiums the other day. Huge, dark eyes bulged, opaque and fathomless, from its triangular face, giving away nothing of the alien thoughts it might have been thinking. I wasn't, after all, dinner-sized (smaller than a sparrow, larger than a midge), nor was I making threatening overtures of a predatory sort.

We stared at one another for quite a while, he and I, although I concede that he is more practiced at remaining stealthy-still than fidgety me. Just a shimmer of movement gave him away to begin with, a rhythmic, back-and-forth samba set to music only he could hear with his single, cyclopian ear, a gentle, rocking dance that ceased the moment he detected my unexpected presence.

It was a praying mantis, of course, one of hundreds whose emergence I witnessed back in June when a foamy egg case attached to a dry peony stem suddenly boiled over with tiny mantises no longer than this --.

Perfect replicas of the adults, the tiny critters descended to earth on gossamer strands produced by a special gland for exactly this purpose. Rapid evacuation of the egg case is highly recommended, since a hungry mantis's first meal is often an equally hungry sibling.

Mantids (as they are collectively known) live but a single season, emerging in June, growing rapidly to maturity in August, and dying off in September or October. Although I never had seen a mantis egg case before, I immediately recognized the ootheca from field guide illustrations; it's a hardened, foamy mass about the size of a Ping-Pong ball, and quite unmistakable

Egg case                                                        John Tann/Flickr

Egg case                                                        John Tann/Flickr

There are about 1,800 mantids in the world, ranging from a pygmy type only 2/5ths of an inch long to a Sri Lankan behemoth that reaches 10 inches and preys not only on insects, but on reptiles and small birds. In the Northeast, we primarily see a European import, Mantis religiosa, said to have arrived in 1899 on a shipment of nursery plants.

The name, derived from a Greek word for prophet or seer, acknowledges the prayful attitude of the insect as it awaits suitable victims. But it is equally appropriate to think of this creature as a "preying" mantis.

Indiscriminate in its taste for harmful and beneficial insects alike, it also will seize caterpillars, moths, grasshoppers and even unwary hummingbirds in "raptorial" front legs equipped with retractable, serrated spines. Capture can occur in less than a blink of the eye -- 30 to 50 one-thousandth of a second.

After a quick bite to the neck,the prey is unceremoniously devoured, alive and often still kicking. Mantids, in turn, are on the menu of any number of things, including birds, toads and lizards. The mantis's strange and unique ear, tuned to extremely high "ultrasonic" frequencies, is believed to have evolved to detect bats, another major predator.

You may know that the female mantis is famous -- notorious, really -- for biting her mate's head off and devouring him, often as the act of copulation continues uninterrupted. Well, this really only happens about a third of the time, probably when the female is especially undernourished, but it is a little . . . disturbing.

Pierre Ott, author of "Love in the Garden," sees things a little differently, as is his wont. "Having lost his head," Ott says of the male mantis, mating can continue "minus the complications caused by fantasizing, minus the inevitable orchestrated feelings, minus those mood swings that so often get in the way of action . . . " Oh, Pierre, you pragmatist!

In case you were wondering, mantises don't bite or sting, but can give you a sharp pinch with those armored front legs.  Chinese and Africans believe the mantis brings good luck, but American Southerners, who alternately call them devil horses, thought that mantis saliva could kill a horse or make a man go blind. I'm sure you'll sleep better knowing this is a scurrilous and unfounded rumor, and that mantises, while fierce in their way, are lacking in venom and innocent of designs upon our livestock.

Just keep a wary eye out for praying mantises on hummingbird feeders. Switzerland’s University of Basel recently reported that mantises are killing small birds on every continent (except Antactica). Our beloved ruby-throated hummingbirds were the most frequently documented victims in the United States.