Saturday, April 11, 2009

Praying for Mantis

Image: Praying Mantis Egg Cases pictured in my gardens today.

I've included these pictures for those of you who have never seen (or known you have seen) an egg case for the very VERY beneficial Praying Mantis insect.

There are 2,000 species of mantids and the closest relative is the cockroach. Mantis comes from the Greek word for a prophet or seer. During that time it was believed the insect possessed supernatural powers.
Today, we know the praying mantis possesses almost supernatural insect killing powers. Eating only live meat (with no discrimination), they have been imported as a means of controlling pest insects. In truth, they will eat both good and bad insects. The really large ones have been known to even eat small birds and lizards.

They are among the very few insects with a functional neck on which the head can swivel. Most mantis in Illinois are the imported Chinese mantis and are among the largest in the world.

The female lays her eggs in the fall and they can survive severe winters. They hatch when the weather turns warm in the spring. You may not see them as they resemble a mosquito and drop by a thin thread to the ground where they blend with the vegetation. 

They shed their skin many times before they look like the mantis that is instantly recognized. Tan to pale green in color at maturity, they usually sit and wait for prey to come close enough to strike and snatch with their front legs.

I'm fortunate to have a large population in my gardens. Since I seldom use any chemical insecticides, I don't kill them or their food. The twigs of my bushes will have as many as ten egg cases each. Each female will lay several cases each fall.

Young will stay within the area where they hatch if food is plentiful. I've seen the same mantis sitting on a house shutter the entire summer. I'll come close to take pictures or just watch and she'll turn her head to check me out. As I move my finger, she will turn her head (probably sizing up her chances at making it her next meal.)

Some Asian cultures keep praying mantis as pets. I prefer to have them carnivorously enjoy the bounty of my garden. Since they are at the top of the insect food chain, they have few natural predators and little need to scurry away and hide.

The praying mantis will not bite humans unless you are messing with them or try to pick them up incorrectly. The only time I move them is if they are in danger (like the house is being painted, on the screen door where there will be traffic, and etc.) Usually, a little "shushing" encourages them to move away. They seldom fly and will slowly lumber away or drop to the ground.

You can mail order egg cases until the first of June. Just remember for a praying mantis to survive, you can not use chemical insecticides. Even if it doesn't kill them, it will decrease their prey, and they will be forced to leave your yard for other gardens.

“Be thankful for the smallest blessing, and you will deserve to receive greater. Value the least gifts no less than the greatest, and simple graces as especial favors. If you remember the dignity of the Giver, no gift will seem small or mean, for nothing can be valueless that is given by the most high God.”—Thomas รก Kempis.

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