By Mark Fike
A few weeks ago I was out in the garden early and noticed a slight movement on one of my tall sunflowers. Upon closer inspection, I found a Chinese praying mantid.
Over the years I have noticed these creatures in swamps, on our butterfly bushes, in fields and of course while taking a walk through my garden, which is very likely like a great buffet; perhaps the insect world version of Denny’s.
The Chinese mantid is what many find in their gardens on the northeast and east coasts as they were supposedly introduced in Philadelphia by a nursery worker. Chinese mantids can often measure up to and even over five inches. The Chinese mantid came to us from China in 1896 and was brought here to help control insects. We do have other species of mantids that are smaller.
They look like a creepy science fiction creation when you really examine them closely. Their head is triangular and can swivel around to look over its shoulder. Really it is quite uncanny to see. The eyes on the mantid are very sharp and they stare at you as if they can read your mind.
If you have ever watched a Chinese mantid or any mantis on a bush that attracts butterflies, you will be amazed how fast they can catch and decimate a butterfly. Nature can be vicious even to beautiful things when necessary. Their strong mouthparts can cut through shells of insects with no problem. They are the Terminator of the insect world. If they ate more often or if they moved faster from place to place, they would really be a force to be reckoned with.
They sit completely still for very long periods of time in ambush before moving. Their coloration makes them very tough to see until they move. For the past few weeks, my daughter has had one on her screen each morning as it waits for the insect world to awake and provide breakfast.
Food sources vary but the larger mantids have been reportedly known to attempt and sometimes take small lizards. They use their front legs to strike out and snatch prey, mostly insects. Some have been known to snatch small hummers from flowers too.
Most of the Chinese mantids are green with tan wings. The mantids will be mating very soon. The female lays hundreds of eggs in oval sacs called ootheca. Males will mate with various females so the eggs in the ootheca may have different fathers.
The oothecal has a foamy coating that is reportedly repulsive to birds. Surprisingly the eggs tend to survive frosts. Springtime arrives and small tan colored versions creep out and begin hunting. Sometimes the tiny mantids will even eat each other.
These large mantids are great for pest control in your garden if you don’t mind losing a few good insects such as butterflies. They are easy to catch if you grasp them behind the neck and don’t mind having their spiked legs claw at you. Catching one and letting your kids examine it is a great idea. Just be gentle with it and release it back into your garden if you want your free sentry back on duty.