The Praying Mantis

I’ve seen what the bite of a brown recluse spider can do; a friend of mine lost a chunk of his thigh that way. The bite of a black widow spider can be gruesome too—scroll through a few internet photos. When outhouses were still common, so were black widow bites, and men, with their thin-skinned, unprotected genitalia, were especially vulnerable. I can’t imagine a more abrupt wake-up call than a spider bite to the scrotum.

Scorpions deliver venom through a stinger at the tip of their tails. Unchanged for eons, these arachnids have become a symbol of power and/or evil, their cautionary image appearing on countless artifacts. While bees have garnered a friendlier reputation, their stings are equally painful and in some cases fatal. Thirty times more painful than a bee sting is the pierce of a bullet ant, common in the rain forests of Nicaragua and Paraguay. Closer to home is the kissing bug, a creature that inhabits the American southwest and transmits Chagas, an infection that kills 12,000 people a year. Leading the pack of dangerous insects is the mosquito, whose disease-rich blood kills one child every half minute.

While all these treacherous creatures command respect, the bug that truly unnerves me, for its stealth, its guises, its casual cannibalism, is the praying mantis. Harmless to humans, this lanky assassin dispatches other insects with alarming speed and can even snatch hummingbirds from the air, a feat I hope never to witness.

Praying mantises are usually discovered by chance. Trimming a hedge, admiring a bloom, we become aware of a slim apparition poised on the periphery. Tan, green, brown or black (camouflage is one of their many endowments), mantises appear ominous in any color, and only the most hardened among us doesn’t startle at the sight of them. These creatures are gluttonous, their appetites keeping pace with their prowess, and some will explode their own abdomens in an orgy of greed. A mantis in the garden is a harbinger of doom: something is going to die, horribly and soon.

Mantises have triangular heads, a beaky snout and bulging compound eyes with which they can follow minute movements and zero in on their victims. A flexible neck allows them to turn their heads 180 degrees. Sometimes mantises camouflage themselves and wait for a luckless bug; other times they actively stalk, avid as egrets. A few fearsome ground species race across the dirt in pursuit of their panicked prey. A mantis’s forelegs are oversized and edged with spines, ensuring a solid hold on whatever they seize. Most species have two sets of wings, the tougher, outer set serving as armor for the more delicate hind wings. Though they are chiefly diurnal, they often fly at night, perhaps to avoid being eaten by birds. To elude bats, they employ a specialized auditory organ capable of detecting echolocation calls. 

Mantises are masters of adaptation. Some Australian species will turn black after a molt, their coloration mimicking the landscape of fire season. Those that live on mono-colored surfaces have flattened bodies to eliminate their own shadows. Some resemble flowers, turning unwitting pollinators into easy pickings.

Female mantises are mercurial, one day allowing a mate to do his business and leave, another day chomping off his head, even before copulation has begun. The headless male is not deterred and will perform with more urgency. Occasionally the female will decapitate the male afterward, or eat him whole, bestowing a boost of nutrition on her prodigious progeny—as many as 400 eggs are produced. The frothy egg mass soon hardens into a winter-worthy case from which the nymphs emerge on a warm spring day, consuming each another as they stream into the world. Only about a fifth will survive their own savagery.

Some gardeners, wanting eco-friendly pest control, will purchase these egg cases and place them in the yard. The problem is, praying mantises do not discriminate; they will eat aphids and cutworms, along with lady bugs and butterflies. They just don’t see the difference.

I learned this up close last week when I spotted a praying mantis in my flower bed. Thrilled, I bent down for a closer look and saw with dismay that it was dining on a bee. A bee! Our most vital and endangered bug. I watched in horror as the mantis munched its way through the striped body. I watched until the end, until the last tuft of yellow fuzz was gone, and the last tiny pane of wing. Only then did the mantis turn its alien head and look up at me. For several seconds we peered at one another. It did not flinch, even when I raised my phone and snapped a picture.

At last it lowered its head, perhaps concluding I was too big to eat and thus of no value or interest. Then, cool as a cat, it lifted a foreleg and began grooming, neatly removing the last bits of bee.