In the insect world, there are good bugs and there are bad bugs. And then there is the praying mantis. The indiscriminate hunter. The dinosaur of the insect world. The hunter and the hunted. Both intriguing and deadly.
Watching a praying mantis stalk its prey feels a bit like Jurassic Park. They will sit still, waiting the perfect moment to ambush the unexpecting. Insect. Lizard. Small bird. They don’t care. They will take down a nasty grasshopper just as easily as a beautiful butterfly or a beneficial honeybee. They are carnivores, eating meat instead of vegetation like many garden insects. The mantis: both good bug and bad bug. All in one fascinating package.
Mary Ann, a child’s picture book by Betsy James, was a favorite at our home when my son was young.
Amy, sad that her best friend Mary Ann moved away, told her daddy that she wished there were hundreds and hundreds of Mary Anns. “Then if one ever moves away, it wouldn’t matter,” she says. When Amy finds a praying mantis in her clubhouse, she names the mantis Mary Ann and puts the mantis in a terrarium inside their home. Every day the mantis gets larger and larger, until one day, “when summer was over, she pushed a ball of foam out of her tail, onto a fern stem.” This foam hardens, thus protecting the eggs inside. Mary Ann, the mantis, passes away after laying her eggs, as often happens in the insect world. Time passes, and the lid falls off the terrarium. Then.. one day… the family returns home to find…the egg has hatched!
“Look at all the Mary Anns!”
Hundreds and hundreds of Mary Anns.
Mary Anns in the teacups. Mary Anns on the toaster and the telephone, under the soap, behind the vegetables! Mary Anns all over the house! “I had hundreds and hundreds of Mary Anns,” the excited girl in the story exclaims!
And such it is when a praying mantis egg hatches. A small hard foamy egg about the diameter of a quarter, home to hundreds of babies!
The babies, about the size of half a grain of rice, emerge in bunches, by the hundreds.
It is an amazing sight to behold.
The female mantis lays one egg case in the fall – a foamy capsule, generally attached to a small stem or branch. She then dies. Come spring, the egg case hatches.
Praying mantis egg cases may be purchased from science supply companies, online garden sources or at some local nurseries. Place the egg case in a (well!) covered terrarium (so you don’t have Mary Anns in your teacups!) Make sure the terrarium is out of direct sunlight! And then…wait patiently…ever so patiently…until one day you will notice – movement! The egg case is…covered…with itty bitty baby praying mantis.
There are around 2,000 species of mantis around the world. Depending on the species, one praying mantis may lay up to 400 eggs.
The praying mantis has an incomplete metamorphosis, meaning that the nymph (young insect) that emerges looks like a mini replica of the adult praying mantis. Triangular head. Bulging compound eyes. Elongated body. Large forelegs, perfectly adapted for catching prey.
Fierce hunter, right from the beginning. Once hatched, the terrarium lid needs to be removed so the mantis can scatter. They are hungry and ready to eat immediately and, if not able to find other food, they will turn cannibal.
Insects that go through incomplete metamorphosis have three stages of life – egg, nymph and adult. They will shed their hard exoskeleton as they grow, molting, discarding one exoskeleton for another, several times throughout their short lives. Most of the praying mantis species in our country grow to about three inches in length.
Never pick up a praying mantis, as they are easily injured. However, you can place your hand near them and they will walk onto you. No need to worry about being bit.
Whether they are beneficial to an organic garden or not is debatable, but hatching a mantis egg is a fun spring-time science experiment for children – of all ages!