Summer brings a flush of insect life to Massachusetts, some more welcome than others. From butterflies to bees, ants to aphids, our six-legged friends are suddenly everywhere.
Certainly one of the most interesting insects you’re likely to encounter is the praying mantis. Named for the prayer-like position in which it holds its front legs, the mantis is actually a formidable hunter, and the only thing it’s likely to be praying for is its next meal. Those folded forelimbs are actually modified raptorial graspers equipped with specialized spikes for grabbing and holding onto prey. Mantises (or mantids, as the entire group of these insects is known — Mantis refers to a particular genus of mantids) feed mainly on other insects, including grasshoppers, crickets, moths and flies. They’ve even been known to impale and eat hummingbirds! I once made the mistake of grabbing a mantis, which promptly jabbed me with those lightning fast forelimbs, puncturing my finger and drawing blood. Ouch! Their strong mouthparts allow them to tear apart the exoskeletons of their insect prey.
Mantids have large compound eyes and excellent vision. They can rotate their heads up to 180 degrees, allowing them to scan their environment for prey, as well as potential predators, such as birds. Adult mantids also have wings and are capable of flying.
In addition to eating other insects, the female praying mantis often eats the male after mating. She will sometimes bite the male’s head off during mating! Unbelievably, the body of the male mantis is able to continue mating even after losing its head, and when mating is complete the female will finish eating the male’s body.
Female mantises lay their eggs in autumn, attaching the batch of up to several hundred eggs to a plant stem or leaf with a frothy liquid that hardens into a Styrofoam-like case that protects the eggs over the winter. Baby mantids, or nymphs, which resemble miniature adults, emerge in the spring. Mantids are cannibalistic and often feed on their siblings after hatching. They spend the spring and summer eating and growing to maturity before mating in the fall. Depending on the species, most mantids live from six months to a year.
According to Dr. Piotr Naskrecki, an entomologist at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, there are 2,443 species of mantids worldwide. Thirty species occur in North America north of Mexico, four of which are introduced species.