The Garden Assassin
Of all the potential insect visitors gardeners may encounter, perhaps none has more charisma than the praying mantis. “The ultimate insect assassin” is how famed British filmmaker David Attenborough describes it. You can forgive Sir David a bit of hyperbole when you realize that this is the only insect in the world with a martial arts style modeled after it, Praying Mantis Kung Fu.
The story goes that one Wang Lang, a Taoist monk in 17th century, Ming Dynasty era China, was resting in the shade of a willow tree on a hot summer’s day. There he observed a praying mantis defeat a larger cicada by using skill rather than mere force. Intrigued, the young monk captured the mantis and enticed (the word badgered comes to mind) the mantis into sparring by poking at him with the handle of his writing brush. Wang Lang learned that the mantis had a definite style, even a certain panache. It used techniques like weaving, advancing, retreating and grasping. No record exists whether or not other martial artists snickered under their breath when Wang shared his discovery. After all, other martial arts styles were modeled after cranes, snakes, leopards, tigers and even dragons. Here was Wang looking to a—well, to a bug, for inspiration.
One could easily argue, however that the fighting style of the mantis is only one intriguing aspect of this insect. Perhaps not even its most remarkable. For starters, the praying mantis isn’t a single species but rather the common name for a vast complex of species totaling over 2,000 and counting. The “praying” part of the name comes from those amazing raptorial forelegs. Armed with spikes for holding onto prey, they are often held up in front of the head as if our little friend is deep in prayer. In fact, the European mantis’s scientific name is Mantis religiosa.
The mantis’ religious bent goes beyond prayer, as the name mantis comes from the Greek word for prophet and much folklore is associated with it. For example, an old European folktale holds that they help wayward children find their way home. A Muslim tale says that mantises always pray facing Mecca.
Some have argued that all this religious symbolism is beside the point and they should be called preying mantis to reflect their role as fearsome hunters of prey. For while there is considerable variability among species, there are no vegetarians in their ranks. Amongst the many species found around the world are a tremendous variety of sizes and camouflage strategies. When full grown, mantises range from easy to miss half-inch long sprites to 7 ½” bruisers fully capable of taking out small birds, mice, frogs and even snakes. Wang Lang was on to something when he created his style of martial art. These aren’t bugs to be underestimated.
Mantises are more than mere fighting brutes. Like ninja assassins, they are masters of disguise. They are able to hide in plain sight, looking like dead leaves, sticks, grass, blotchy green and white tree bark, and perhaps, most famously, flowers. Some of the loveliest imitate orchids. Their pink and white bodies disappear among the leaves. This allows them to hide from would-be predators as well as potential prey. Throughout the U. S., you are often more likely to run into non-native mantises, known as adventives, with brown or green coloration.
Adventives are introduced or escaped non-native species that are now self-sustaining in the wild. Most U. S. adventives are Chinese and European mantises. Introduced from abroad to help control insect pest populations, they are now ubiquitous throughout the country. Their egg cases, or oothecae, are commonly available from garden supply companies for insect control. So, should one take the plunge and buy some mantis egg cases for the garden? In a word, maybe.
When a mantis egg case (usually it is the Chinese mantis that is sold) hatches out, a small army of newborn mantises are born, each a miniature replica of an adult. As is common in nature, far more offspring are born than will survive to adulthood. As they grow to adult size they have to shed, or molt, their exoskeleton as many as seven or more times. The ultimate molt means adulthood and two significant bonuses¾sexual maturity and wings. The males take advantage of their wings, flying at night in search of females. The females, heavily laden with eggs, use their wings more sparingly. In some species the females’ wings are reduced in size or absent altogether. Throughout their lives they will employ their formidable hunting skills to capture and eat whatever they can grasp with those signature spiked forelegs; pests, pollinators, they don’t discriminate.
As most gardeners know, there are no easy fixes when it comes to combating insect pests. Because of the mantis’ refusal to be more accommodating and eat only pests, they are no silver bullet. However, there is nothing quite like watching a mantis swaying side to side, judging distance by seeing how its potential prey moves against a backdrop, and then striking in a flash. Mantises are quite capable of plucking house flies out of mid-air; in fact, they routinely do.
No amount of mantis acrobatics will allow them to out-maneuver and survive winter. But, if you are lucky, you will have at least one adult female that will mate and lay egg cases for next year. These oothecae are indeed able to survive the winter. Bringing them inside or in a greenhouse won’t necessarily work as they need a cooling down period and moisture to successfully hatch. Best to let Mother Nature handle this.
Whether or not they possess supernatural powers, the mantis continues to fascinate and are worth an up-close viewing. Even the largest females can be handled if you gently encourage them to walk up onto your hand. Rough handling might be met with an impressive defensive display, wings open, forelegs spread out. Grabbing might injure the mantis, and beware, they have no reservations about pinching or biting if the intruding human continues to play rough.
So the next time you make a casual visit to your garden, keep your wits about you. Lurking invisibly amongst the tomato plants might be a cold-blooded killer, ninja assassin, prophet and even occasionally a gardeners’ ally, all rolled into one.
DB Rudin is a freelance writer, teacher and environmental activist. He is currently the Education Coordinator at Venetucci Farm and Pinello Ranch ( www.venetuccifarm.org ) projects of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation ( www.ppcf.org ). David has been a columnist for Manitou Magazineand, most recently, Greenwoman Magazine. He is an avid birder and also has strong interests in herpetology and entomology. He lives near Garden of the Gods Park with his wife Margaret and their dogs, Gracie and Benny. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog, A Naturalist’s Journal, can be found here: https://naturethroughtheseasons.wordpress.com/
(“Garden Assassin” illustration by Rachael Davis.)