Mantis Mantra: Prey, Eat, Procreate

On Sunday, a praying mantis showed up in the foliage of one of our garden plants.

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BUH-DUM, BUH-DUM: Just below the flowery whitecaps, a great green cruises in search of prey to exercise its jaws. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

It was soon easy to see why, as the clouds of white flowers were drawing a smorgasbord of bugs – bees, wasps, flies, mosquitoes.

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STILL A CHANCE: A carpenter bee comes perilously close to the mantis amid the flowers of a thoroughwort plant. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

Then the delta head of the mantis swiveled toward a point of interest. The mantis closed on a bee.

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EYES ON: The mantis turns its attention toward the target. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

In a flash of long, saw-toothed legs, the bee became a meal. A few bee carcasses littered the ground inside the plant perimeter.

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BYGONE BEE: The flight of a bee ends in the clutches of the mantis. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

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MANTIS MOUTHFUL: A carpenter bee disappears into the delta head of the mantis. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

After eating voraciously for days, the mantis drew a mate. They were together for a day and a night. Then they disappeared.

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MANTIS MATING: The urge for the next generation begins in earnest. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

The pattern is well known to Mike Raupp, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland.

The mantis begins its life in spring as a nymph, looking like a miniature adult and emerging among multitudes from an egg case deposited on a branch the prior fall by a female.

“They gobble each other up before they disperse,” Raupp said. “The lucky ones that get away from their siblings then will spread out and begin to consume things in the garden.”

They grow and then, by the fall, their one-year life cycle is on the ebb. With sufficient food and opportunity, the females can mate for than once and deposit more than one egg case, or ootheca, according to Raupp.

For the males, such repetition is less likely, since the females engage in “sexual cannibalism,” where they eat their mates. “You do leave progeny behind. So it’s a noble sacrifice in that regard,” Raupp said of the males.

The effect of the mantis presence can depend on one’s point of view. Carpenter bees were the only insects that I saw the mantis eat.

“Some would consider the loss of a carpenter bee as a negative because they are natural pollinators,” Raupp said. “Others who are having their deck and siding riddled with carpenter bees would consider it a benefit.”

The mantis on my plant disappeared after it mated, leaving no ootheca, or at least none that I could see.

“As you might imagine, there is a huge amount of mortality,” Raupp said, noting that as the mantis preys, it also is preyed upon, including by birds. “Whether or not she had a shot at laying that ootheca is anybody’s guess.”

© 2016 John A. Bray

For the verses version of the mantis story, see “Praying Mantis Stanzas.”