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The praying mantis is an exceptional bug. If you are lucky, you have them in your backyard and elsewhere on your property. Mantises are some of the largest insects around and have one of the most unique and intriguing appearances. They live throughout the world in temperate, tropical, and subtropical climates, although they are not as numerous as they once were. Especially in the Midwest, you may remember seeing them often as a child, but not so regularly anymore.
These stately insects with the alien-like appearance are not just interesting and fun to spot in the yard; they play an important role in the ecosystem and a useful role in your garden. As befits their size, mantises are carnivores. They eat smaller insects, keeping certain populations at reasonable levels. This can be invaluable for gardeners.
The name praying mantis is the common name in English for an entire order of insects. This order, mantodea, contains over 2,000 different species. In Europe, praying mantis refers to just one species, Mantis Religiosa. The common name of this fascinating insect was given for the distinct carriage of the insects’ front legs. They are held in such a manner that they appear to be devoutly praying. The name mantis comes from the Greek word for prophet, a further indication of the religious appearance of these apex insect predators.
Mantises earn great respect for their predatory acumen. They only eat other animals and are exclusively carnivores. Most of the species of mantis eat other insects, typically those that are smaller. However, some of the larger species of mantis can actually catch and eat small rodents, birds, frogs, snakes, and lizards.
The hunting technique used by the vast majority of mantis species is to play the wait-and-see game. These masters of disguise are camouflaged very well to their environments and are capable of staying eerily still for long periods of time. When a prey species ambles along, ignorant of the lurking peril, the mantis strikes out with lighting speed and catches them firmly between the praying forelegs.
So, why should you be lucky to see a mantis in your yard or garden? Because they make an excellent form of natural pest control. A praying mantis in your garden will eat voraciously and will consume just about any type of insect. They will eat beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, flies, mosquitoes, aphids, moths, and even cockroaches. If you don’t think you have any mantises in your garden, you can bring them in by purchasing eggs. You can hatch and raise your very own nymphs into adult mantises. Keep in mind, though, that you do not want too many praying mantises. They will eat insects indiscriminately, and will not hesitate to chow down on your other beneficial bugs. A healthy garden has a good balance between predator and prey.
A single egg case contains around 200 eggs. About twenty to fifty nymphs will hatch and not all will survive, so you will not be overrun by adult praying mantises. One egg case will cover about 2,000 square feet and give you an appropriate population. You can put the case out in your yard and let nature take its course, or you can raise the insects indoors before releasing. If you plan to put the case or cases outside, find a safe location. The crotch of a tree, a shelf or ledge on a fence, or a branch in a shrub are all good choices.
Raising mantises indoors is another option, and a fun one. Creating a terrarium and watching the mantises grow into adults is a great learning experience and a project your kids will love. Use a clear glass or plastic container, such as a two-liter pop bottle or a fish bowl, and cover the top with mesh so the baby mantises cannot get out. Your terrarium should contain a stick or two and a small dish of water for moisture. You can include other outdoor elements as well, like rocks and leaves.
The terrarium should be in a warm spot in the house, but out of intense, direct sunlight. In about three weeks, tiny nymphs will begin to emerge from the egg case. Before long they will start eating each other, so as soon as they hatch it’s time to collect insects for feeding your babies. Give the nymphs small, soft insects that cannot fly away from them. As they grow larger, you can give them bigger food and those with wings. You can release the mantises at any time, but by the time they are fully grown, they will not be able to share the terrarium.
None of the mantises that live in North America are on a threatened or endangered list, however, their populations are not as strong as they once were. Because of this, sightings are not very common, which may have spawned a popular myth that it is illegal to kill a praying mantis. It may not be illegal, but there is no good reason to kill a mantis, and plenty of great reasons to encourage their population on your property.