By DAVID GREEN
There’s nothing quite like the feel of a praying mantis crawling up your bare arm. There just isn’t anything that compares.
But that’s the best way to handle a mantid. Just let it walk onto your hand and wherever else it wants to go. If you squeeze one around the plump abdomen, it’s going to get frightened and might even become a little aggressive.
I acquired a mantid, as they’re properly called, over the weekend and what a treat. My mother discovered it at the top of a porch screen and I brought it home for closer study.
This guy—gal?— is a good four inches long, which is probably the biggest insect you’re going to find in this part of the world.
I never tried to figure out whether it was male or female. It’s a matter of counting the body segments. I didn’t even determine what species I had. It looked exactly like a field guide photo of the Carolina mantid, but they aren’t supposed to live this far north.
There are several mantids that seem to be grouped under the heading “praying mantis,” but it’s the European mantid that actually claims that name. There’s supposed to be a bull’s eye pattern under the foreleg, but I didn’t see one. Besides, I’m no mantid trainer capable of making one raise a leg.
My friend, Deby, from Plymouth, says it’s a little like a newspaper personal ad. “SFM looking for SMM with bull’s eye on lower undereside fo tarsus. Enjoys moonlight strolls, the occasional crickete and predaceous habit.”
There are about 2,000 species of mantids scattered around the globe, but for this area, the Chinese mantid is about the only other choice. Noah, a young friend from Plymouth, says that’s the prevalent species in this area. His mother, Deby, read that the eyes of a Chinese mantid are tan in daylight and chocolate brown at dusk. It was already dark when I learned that.
It’s just some kind of mantid, and leave it at that.
But those amazing eyes, that bizarre triangular head, those skinny barbed legs. This is one oddly handsome insect.
Get up close to a mantid and the piercing eyes follow your every move. Some observers describe it as the most “human” of insects because it can stand up, it has a pair of mobile arms and it has a head that can rotate 180°. It turns like ours, and it has an eerie alien look.
There are plenty of spines on the legs to grasp food, and the front legs fold up under the head to give the look of hands folded in prayer.
“Preying mantis” is more appropriate, some observers say, because those folded hands can shoot out with lightning speed to grab its prey. One scientist says it takes less than 50 thousandths of a second to reach out, grab an insect and bring it to the powerful jaws.
I placed my mantid in a small red horse chestnut tree and watched it do it stick-legged walk around the leaves before settling into position. At one point I must have looked like prey because it charged my hand so fast that I jumped. It has sharp mouth parts, but they’re not long enough to pierce the skin of a human hand.
The insect might be appear fierce, but it’s a good friend to gardeners. In fact, an Asian species was introduced to the United States in 1896 with the goal of pest control. There are some large mantids that will even tackle small birds and frogs.
Mantids don’t shy away from cannibalism, either, and of course there’s the story about the female biting off the head of the male during or after copulation. The male is going to die soon anyway, and his head provides good nutrients for the soon-to-be mother.
There seems to be some controversy about whether or not this is typical behavior or whether it’s more prevalent among mantids in captivity. One study determined that sexual cannibalism is quite rare in most species, but fairly common with the European mantid.
After mating, the female whips up a frothy substance with her legs and lays up to 400 eggs in the substance. It soon hardens into a shell like Styrofoam to protect the eggs over winter.
I read that long ago in China, tea made by boiled mantid eggs was prescribed for the treatment of asthma, warts and bed-wetting. Another source said that mantid egg cases were roasted and fed to children to prevent bed-wetting.
As I said, it’s a very beneficial insect.
I visited my mantid Monday at noon to see if it survived the frost. It was still there in the horse chestnut and I tried to feed it a grasshopper. As I left for my own lunch, the two were still standing side by side, neither making a move.
I stopped by a few hours later at dinner and both were gone. That was likely the end of all mantid adventures for this season.– Oct. 16, 2002