I tend to visit botanic gardens by myself. It isn’t that I’m being unsociable—I’d love the company! It’s that I move at a pace that most find excruciatingly slow. I have been known to stop and examine every flower, every shrub, and, in this case, every leaf on every tree. And then, on top of that, I take photos. Hundreds of photos. Photos of the flowers, shrubs, trees, and yes, sometimes even the leaves. I can turn a two-hour garden visit into a 6-hour marathon. It drives most people crazy, hence my lack of companions.
But sometimes, that kind of close inspection pays off.
On this particular day, the people rushing by probably wondered why I was staring closely at the small maple tree in front of me. Most were too busy to stop and look, focused more on taking in the big vistas, the next garden. That’s fine—we’re all interested in different things.
For those that did stop to see what had me so interested, they were rewarded with a good look at this:
Yes, there was a well-camouflaged praying mantis nestled in the leaves.
I think these imposing creatures are one of the most fascinating insects around. Worldwide, there are about 2,300 species of praying mantis. This one was likely a European Praying Mantis, originally imported for pest control. While mantises are fairly common (only one is considered endangered), they blend in with their surroundings so well that they’re hard to see. It takes patience and good observation skills to find them. Can you find the mantis in this photo?
One look at the position of the front legs and it’s easy to see where the mantis gets its name. But sometimes, I think they should be called “preying” mantises instead, as they’re voracious predators. Gardeners like to buy the egg cases to place in their yards, so they’ll have plenty of mantises patrolling for pests, but they’re largely ineffective at pest control. The insects aren’t choosy, and along with the aphids and hornworms we want them to eat, they’ll also eat insects who don’t harm our plants, along with beneficials such as bees, ladybugs, butterfly larvae, and even one another. Even small vertebrates—lizards, fish, frogs, and mice—aren’t safe from the larger species.
It’s easy to imagine a ferocious mantis stalking its prey, but most are content to lurk, unseen, until an unwary insect crosses their path. Then they pounce, using their forelegs to capture and immobilize their victim. As I stared at the mantis, I reflected that it’s a good thing mantises are measured in inches instead of feet—they’d be the stuff of nightmares! Instead, they’re considered harmless to us humans and are sometimes kept as pets, although they can still give a good nip to an unwary finger.
All that ferocity doesn’t protect mantids from becoming prey themselves. Larger lizards, frogs, and birds enjoy a mantis meal. So do some arthropods—spiders, hornets, and even ants. Some parasitic wasp species lay their eggs on the mantis nymphs. The eggs hatch into wasp larvae that develop inside the mantis, dining on their living banquet.
When it comes to making baby mantises, in the majority of mantis species, the male elaborately courts the female. I don’t know about wine and roses, but he may invite the her to dance. The whole point is to redirect her attention from feeding to breeding. Once she accepts the male, he climbs onto her back and mating commences.
But a quarter of these sexual encounters do not end well, at least from the males’ perspective. Apparently, the female’s attention wanders back to feeding while the male is still busy mating. Turning to her mate, who is still on her back, she bites his head off—quite literally—and then proceeds to consume the rest of him as well. Presumably, that gives her some sort of evolutionary advantage—perhaps she needs the extra nutrients to create the next generation. In any case, while males outnumber females at hatching, this “sexual cannibalism“ results in an equal gender ratio in adulthood.
There’s one species of mantis that has taken this anti-male behavior to extremes. In the case of Brunner’s Stick Mantis, found in the southern U.S., there are no males at all! The females reproduce by parthenogenesis—their eggs grow and develop without being fertilized.
The eggs are laid in a clump that hardens into an egg case strong enough to survive the cold winters that kill the adults. (Tropical species enjoy a one year lifespan.) The nymphs, which look like tiny adults, emerge in spring, then continue to molt and grow until they mature.
I found this shed exoskeleton on the same bush as the mantis, indicating that, as big as it was, it was still growing. That is one impressive insect!