Ten feet from me, I saw the insect sitting motionless at the edge of a twig. As I sipped my mid-morning coffee, on the steps of my back garden, I watched the insect’s legs suddenly shoot out and grab a grasshopper. Clutching the grasshopper in its powerful legs, adorned by spikes, it bit its head off. In a matter of a few minutes, well before I had finished my morning cuppa, the praying mantis had devoured the grasshopper.
The predatory insect in my backyard, the praying mantis, gets its name from its peculiar posture. The mantis often sits with its legs held together, as though in prayer. Whether the prayer is meant as last rites for potential prey or whether it is a prayer for a successful hunt remains a moot point. In fact, many scientists believe that this insect should be called “preying mantis”, after its predatory behaviour, rather than the more popular “praying mantis”.
The praying mantis has enlarged forelegs, with deadly spikes on them that are well suited to catching and gripping prey. It hunts by stealth, staying motionless until its prey comes within reach. Once the prey is snared in its legs, the mantis uses its powerful mouth to bite, tear and consume its prey. While insects are, for the most part, a significant part of the mantis’s diet, anything that it can catch, it will. Mantises have been known to catch, kill and devour spiders, lizards, frogs, small snakes, and even small birds.
Praying mantises themselves are preyed upon by other creatures such as birds, reptiles, and spiders. To protect themselves, they adopt anti-predatory strategies. Camouflage is the foremost amongst them. Bark mantises are typically found sitting on the bark of trees, well camouflaged. Often, I have observed mantises swaying gently from side to side. The stick insect, too, adopts this behaviour. The swaying motion of these insects is believed to help them camouflage themselves, making them appear part of a swaying stem or branch.
Many praying mantises display cannibalistic behaviour. Often, even while the male and female are mating, the female begins to eat the very male that it is copulating with, biting its head off. Why waste a good meal? Praying mantis females lay anything from a few dozen to well over a hundred eggs in a hard-shelled egg case called the ootheca. The praying mantis nymphs that emerge from the ootheca are not mothered over by the female, but are left to fend for themselves.
Praying mantises play a crucial predatory role in nature by controlling insect populations. Unfortunately, they themselves are victims of the relentless use of pesticides and herbicides and gardeners, who do not understand their role in nature. Perhaps the mantids need a prayer as well!