By Alice Batsche
If you look very closely, you may be able to find a praying mantis in your yard, even though they practically disappear on stems and leaves.
Considered a gift to gardeners, the mantids eat only live prey, such as beetles, crickets, cockroaches, aphids and butterflies. For some reason, they will not eat ants.
The European mantis (mantis religiosa) is the most common type found in North America. It is pale green, about two inches long, and most likely came from Europe with trade ships about a century ago. But there are about 2,000 types of mantids worldwide, with most living in Asia and tropical forests. All have big eyes, triangular heads and three pairs of legs. Lifespan is about six months.
With its alien look, this fascinating bug can swivel its head 180 degrees due to a very flexible neck. It has two large compound eyes with three smaller simple eyes in between allowing them to detect movement 60 feet away. Their antennae are used for sensing smells. Amazingly, the mantis has an “ear” on its abdomen. Well, not an ear like ours, but a round organ that uses the same ultrasonic frequency as bats. This is very helpful because bats are the biggest predators of the praying mantis.
In many cultures the mantis is a symbol of meditation and calmness. Since this insect holds its forelegs in a bent position resembling a pious stance, it is aptly named. These forelegs have spiky rows that catch and pin prey in place.
Spring is the best time of year to look for newly hatched praying mantises called “nymphs.” Looking exactly like mini adults, they simultaneously emerge from the egg case and are ravenous. Nearby siblings are usually a first meal for them. The nymphs have no wings yet, so they quickly jump from plant to plant feasting on flies, aphids and small grasshoppers.
Summer finds the mantis developing wings midway down its back. The female will fly when she wants to mate. She is larger than the male and will eat the male if she is hungry or if he is too slow to get away.
Autumn is when the female spins an egg case, called an “ootheca,” to protect the 40-100 eggs during cold weather until spring.
If you are lucky enough to find a Praying Mantis, you could keep one as a pet. Just remember they only eat live prey.
Alice Batsche, a newly certified master gardener, lives in Cobblestone Farms.
This column appears in the April issue of InMaricopa.