The Praying Mantis: The Hero That Your Garden (Probably) Deserves

When the casual garden-dweller witnesses a praying mantis in action, it is probably not without some trepidation. These carnivores are swift enough to snag a moth in mid-air and merciless enough to consume members of their own species when other sources of food run low. Even their appearance is unnerving; with two bulging eyes atop a narrow face, the mantis resembles the archetypical alien of twentieth-century sci-fi films. Mantises can even rotate their head a full 360 degrees—not unlike young Regan from The Exorcist. While these creatures are certainly horror-movie material as far as other insects are concerned, their voracious appetite makes them particularly useful to gardeners. When it comes to biological pest control, the praying mantis is the grower’s best friend.

Mantises target many of the more burdensome leaf-eating species (e.g. beetles and grasshoppers), and unlike most humans, they love cockroaches. The praying mantis is also one of few nighttime predators skillful enough to catch and eat moths. While adult moths are not a noteworthy threat, their larvae are capable of devastating whole gardens. Many horticulturalists argue that a thriving mantid population is essential for any healthy organic garden. Special care must be taken to provide a suitable habitat for these species; even minimal chemical pesticide use can devastate praying mantis populations. Whereas species can take years to reestablish themselves, crop-devouring pests will return with a vengeance and—unburdened by predators—will wreak havoc on defenseless gardens. For this reason, growers should consider purchasing dormant mantid egg cases.

Mantises in the Wild

Praying mantises are avid eaters. They will ultimately consume both harmful and beneficial insect species, and each other if nothing else suffices. Mantises can hunt both during the day and at night, maximizing their chow time. They are both quick and stealthy; typically a shade of green or brown, mantises are adept at camouflaging themselves amongst the spring- and summer-time shrubbery. While a few species of praying mantis are native to temperate North America, most can be found in tropical climates.

Female praying mantises are notorious for decapitating their mating partners en coitus, but some males do escape with their lives after consummation. Mating takes place in late summer and females deposit their eggs in late fall before succumbing to the cold. The hungry offspring emerge the following spring and immediately seek out smaller insects such as leafhoppers, aphids, and small flies for consumption. Praying mantises don’t change much anatomically throughout their life cycle; mantis nymphs are essentially smaller-scale versions of their parents.

Mantises as Pets

Praying mantises can also be kept as pets, but prospective pet owners should keep in mind that the maximum expected life span for any mantis species is only about a year. There are a number of options to consider as far as appearance goes. Their size can vary quite a bit, from less than an inch to six or more, and some are brown and twig-like while others are brightly colored. However, all praying mantises are carnivores and as such, should be housed individually. In order to house a praying mantis, you will need a relatively small tank (about three times its length and two times its width) filled with soil or peat mixed with vermiculite or sand as well as a few twigs from which the mantis can hang while molting.

Misting is probably the easiest and safest way to provide your pet mantis with water. Especially in the case of young nymphs, they can drown in a water bowl. Many different types of insects should be provided, so that all nutritional needs are met. They can be fed simply by placing the intended prey inside of the tank, but if the enclosure is too large, the mantis may have a difficult time finding its food. Ideal temperature, humidity, and food will vary by species, so it’s a good idea to do some research before committing to owning a praying mantis.

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