Wild Life / praying mantis

the little prophet

Hi, friends — this week we got a visit from hurricane Henri, who washed our windows and scrubbed the grass, thankfully nothing too crazy. When the last of the rain subsided, a heat wave arrived. We’re baked inside a hot and steamy, end-of-August soufflé. Perched atop and looking cool is the European praying mantis (Mantis religiosa). —Amy Jean

What exactly is the quality of light in late August? That golden, clear late-morning air that surprises and delights—one-part summer, one-part autumn. I always feel the tension of this transitional moment, as plants make their last-gasp growth and animals are poised in preparation for shorter days. The carefree attitude of summer holds a deep heart; it beats now with the inevitable, incremental turn toward winter.

With this in mind, the European “praying” mantis appears unexpectedly, large and calm, on a platform of sedum blooms or the protective foliage of an andromeda shrub. The mantis is as long as a child’s hand in shades of green or brown (the variation of their coloration is a bit of a mystery).

There is something about the shape of its face and eyes and general size and manner—seemingly methodical and precise, and of course “praying”—that affects the way we perceive mantises, which are related to cockroaches. People do not run away in disgust; instead, we see them as small, magical beings (“mantis” comes from the Greek word for “prophet”).

First, their eyes—large and charismatic, they can see in three-dimensions (an incredible fact, mantises are the only insects that can). Their depth perception is different from ours, however, and prioritizes movement, which mantises use to catch prey. The little black spot that looks like a pupil is not a true pupil, but rather the effect of some of the thousands of light receptors catching and absorbing all the colors of the spectrum at a certain angle. Scientists have made studies of their eyesight by placing the tiniest 3D glasses on mantises (link below).

The European mantis is a voracious predator and can snatch prey with its long front legs in the blink of an eye (literally, and perhaps faster, at 50 thousandths of a second). They mainly feast on insects including grasshoppers, crickets, moths, flies, and spiders. The somewhat larger Chinese mantis has made Internet news for capturing hummingbirds (this is rare—in a bird vs. mantis showdown, it’s more common that larger birds would prey on mantises).

Speaking of eating, you may have heard that female mantises eat males after mating, which is in fact true, about 30 percent of the time. Mantises live for less than a year, so it might make sense to put all available calories into making eggs, though males try to avoid this fate.

Females lay their eggs in the fall in cases called oothecae, which will hatch next spring (these can turn up in fresh-cut Christmas trees, so it’s best to take a look if you don’t want 100 mantises hatching in your warm living room).

There are native mantises on all continents except Antarctica, with around 2,000 species total, in a variety of hues and sizes (some look like sticks, some like flowers). The European mantis, however, is an introduced species, brought to North America in the nineteenth century to control other insect populations. It has made itself at home in our gardens and imaginations. A tiny prophet leading us out of summer.

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Praying mantis links

  • “When the female praying mantis is mating, she does not bite the head off the male with one swift snip: she chomps into it, like an apple. It appears to have the texture of a honeydew melon.” from Helen Sullivan’s column in The Guardian.

  • “Birds Beware: The Praying Mantis Wants Your Brain”—this article in the NYTs features some excellent photos of mantises with 3D glasses.

  • More crazy, amazing video footage of mantises from KQED. I’m mainly fascinated by how their heads turn (they are the only insects that can do this).

Animal encounters in recent comments

  • If anyone has any final summer animal sightings, please add them to the animal diary. I saw my first barred owl!


  • I have a few flower drawings and foxes in the dunes on my sale site, 10% off through the end of August, and we’ll wrap up summer (use the code SUMMER10).

Wild Life #29 / this newsletter is a place to learn about the life around us, one small step/paw/tiny heartbeat at a time. If you enjoy reading, please share with a friend, student, neighbor, teacher. Have a great weekend, and best wishes to all the back-to-schoolers!