The Praying Mantis- A 1990’s Study with my Children

Scientific name: mantodea Family: mantis religiosa Size-1/2″ long att hatching, up to 6″ long as an adult. Color: In Southern North America, there are now “importted Chinese mantises, which are large and green with green eyes. The Carolina Mantis is smaller and brown with brown eyes. They have mixed and some mantises now have brown wings and abdomens and green eyes.                                                              13330351

Though I have studied the praying mantis for many years, I intensified my studies in the 1990’s when my children could participate in “nature studies” with me. For two seasons in the mid-1990′ I kept a journal of the lives of the many praying mantises who lived in my yard, garden and neighborhood. My children and I observed every stage of their lives, from the laying of their eggs in casings, to these same casings hatching in spring, and going through the five instars (shedding their exoskeletons) until they became adults and the cycle started all over again. It was absolutely the most fascinating insect study I have ever done, and my children remember these days with an amazing clarity even today, as the study with their own children.

In 1995, I marked individual mantises as early as their their third instar in order to trace each mantises’ location and specific behaviors. It wasn’t until their fourth instar that I marked most of the 40-some mantises in my study. I also observed that they had the ability to rejuvenate injured or missing limbs as they molted. The larger a mantis became, the larger prey, such as butterflies or even cicadas might become prey. Though they usually stick with small butterfly-like skippers, and bees, a fight with a large butterfly can cause them to loose a limb.

It was especially rewarding to watch the ones that I had marked “moult” or shed their exoskeleton, which is the way an insect with three stages (egg, nymph, adult) grows, because I could then, remark them with the same color and dash-dot sequence as they had been in their previous instar. I used craft paint in a series of dots and dashes. I had them named in my journal, which my children really enjoyed “helping me with”. I found that only the adult or fifth instar could be marked on their thorax, because the hard paint “dot” would inhibit their ability to shed their exoskeleton. On the fourth instar mantises, I would mark them on their abdomen. The third instar starts to show wing buds, and it is usually possible to tell a male from a female at this point. The female has a broader abdomen and is usually larger than the male. Males have a narrow abdomen.


During the third instar, I simply marked them with a small red dot to show that they were in my study. I did mark a few third instars with specific marks, so I could try to follow them to adulthood. Watching a mantis moult is fascinating. As he slowly splits open his transparent brown exoskeleton, the green mantises, also called Chinese Mantises, are a bright blue green, and quite vulnerable. They usually attach their back legs to the underside of a leaf in order to be in a protected place as they moult. They also sleep in this protected position until the sun comes out in the morning.

During the time that I was studying the praying mantis, I did not have the internet, so most of my facts came from personal observation or a variety of nature journals, such as Audubon’s , National Geographic, Insect Guides or other library books on insects. Likewise, I had a wonderful camera and made some photographs that were used in advertising for a photo shop, but, alas, they are on film, and I have never had them put onto disks. Since I do not have the photos on my data files, all but the first photo will be borrowed from internet sources.

The mantis can take on many forms, they are well camouflaged , both to catch prey and avoid being prey. In the tropics, they can be pink, have wings that look like the leaves on the plants they live on or have mottled, oddly shaped wings, and may molt up to ten times. They live less than one year, going through their life cycle from during the warm season in the Appalachians, where I live, or possibly for a longer time in the tropics.

I found that my mantises were very territorial, rarely going far from the gardens and bushes where they hatched. The reason for this is simple, if there is plenty to eat, why leave? Often a second or third instar would be found on bushes with tiny blooms, where gnats and sweat bees were abundant. As they grew, they would move to areas where asters, stonecrop and plants with larger flowers feed. Their favorite prey seemed to be skippers. If you want to study carnivorous insects, you cannot have a weak stomach. The first thing a mantis does is chew off and discard the wings, so that its prey cannot flutter or fight. I have seen a large mantis eating a cicada, while the poor cicada, “screamed’ out in terror as the mantis nibbled on its abdomen.

As with all creatures, the hunter doesn’t always win. My children and I observed several Black Swallowtails put up such a fight that the mantis lost its arm and the butterfly escaped. It was because of my marking of the mantises that we became aware that with each moult, a preying mantis would grow back a small portion of its missing limb. Even though they had only a few instars to develop their new legs or specially made claws that they use for catching prey, a smaller leg, or claw was better than none at all. I had never even read that a preying mantis could regenerate its limbs, much like a starfish or octopus!

An example of my journal would look like this:

Name: Sonny Instar first sighted: third privet hedge in back garden

Other sightings: 7-25-95 -same privet 8-8- second privett 8-15 asters in top garden

Over the course of the summer and fall, I found that mantises remain true to their territory for a week or so, then, they might be found on a nearby flower or bush. It was rare that I saw a mantis in one of my gardens, or neighbors yard, and later found it in a place more than 10 yards away unless it was a large garden filled with asters, marigolds and other flowers. I was able to study quite a few mantises throughout the season.

The mantises became quite used to my presence and would often let me touch them or crawl onto my hand, even up my arm. If they were frightened, they would spread their wings and stand on their back legs while holding out their front claw in order to look as large as possible. We called this a “spreadin’ adder” position, because my aunt often referred to snakes as a “spreadin’ adder” if it curled up and hissed.

One male, we named, “Captain Hook” lost the entire upper portion of his left front “hook-like”claw. Surprisingly it was in a battle with a skipper, which is sometimes described as ” not quite a butterfly and not quite a moth”, because it feeds during the day, but has wings that fold up more like a moth. It is only about an inch long, usually shades of brown and orange. The lack of its second claw made it difficult for Captain Hook to catch and hold onto prey. Occasionally, he would make a “lucky catch, such as a fly or honey bee. The speed with which they snared their prey was amazing. The mantis would ususlly be waiting, claws ready, at the edge of a flower or group of small asters. Sometimes, we “helped” Captain Hook, by hold a fluttering skipper where he could snatch it with its good claw. Since he lost his limb in his fourth instar, he had only a small claw on the end of his lower leg when he moulted into his fifth instar as an adult.

Only a fifth instar mantis has full wings and can fly. The third instar may be starting to show wing buds, but the fourth instar has wings which have developed a bit and are visible at the intersection of the abdomen and thorax. The preying mantis has one ear, which is a slit located on the bottom of the thorax. They are also equipped with “sonar” capabilities, which help them detect night feeding predators such as bats.. They can around in a dive-bomber like movement and change directions in order to avoid capture.

Most young mantises feed on gnats, flies, and sweat bees. As they grew, they, unfortunately, feed on bees which help pollinate our flowers. The do not like beetles and will discard them if they catch one, which they rarely do, apparently having a “sense” of what they prefer to eat by the way it moves. I don’t believe I have ever seen a praying mantis feed on anything but a flying insect.

I have seen a preying mantis crawl onto the edge of a spiders web and be bitten. It escaped, but the limb which as bitten remained paralyzed, even after moulting. I also saw a small brown mantis that had been caught by a spider and was being wrapped up in web, after being bitten. I removed him from the web, and hand fed him for several weeks, but he remained addled and eventually died. The mantis rarely makes such mistakes, and it was only my close observation that allowed it. The praying mantis is the only insect that can move its head to any extent. They seem almost human, as they turn their heads 180 degrees, if necessary to look at you, if you come into their field of vision. With their speed.”sonar” capabilities and movable head, they are one of the best equipped of insects!

It is often said that a female mantis eats its mate, but this is rarely true. I have seen many marked mantises mating with more than one female. In my film-photos, I have a picture of three male mantises trying to mate with one female at the same time. I often saw two males attempting to mate one female. Safety in numbers? Who knows! Just as with the black widow spider who also has the reputation of eating her mate, it only happens if the female is hungry and the male ‘dismounts” in a precarious manor.

The male mantis deposits a “packet” of sperm into the female. They sometimes stay together in the mating position for several days. She can lay several casings from one episode of mating. I have seen a female lay up to three casings on a plant within a few days. The casing is spun by an organ on her lower extremity. It looks like and, during winter, acts like a sort of insulation. The casing is tan in color and is attached to a small branch of a plant that will stand upright or be in a bush, through the winter. When she is making casing, she sits, head downward and moves her abdomen back and forth as she lays her eggs (up to 300) and surrounds them with the insulating froth.

In the mantises I have studied, the males died before the females. A heavy frost will kill them. They can hide underneath leafy plants and survive a light frost. I have seen females hiding under plants or piles of sticks until early December if we have a late frost. We have kept and hand fed injured female mantises until after Thanksgiving. It is the absence of food as well as the cold that kills this delightful insect. I have studied many insects, butterflies, moths and spiders and have written articles for a publication for “Amature Naturalists”, but the preying mantis has always been my favorite.

Now that many of the gardens and bushes that used to be “home” to praying mantises are no longer there, I do not have the opportunity to study them as I once did. I would love to be able to take more digital photographs of them. I study which ever creature presents itself to be studied. It seems most people are not aware or truly interested in the wonderful variety of life that surrounds them. I have been able to share my hobby with many friends, neighbors and school children. I now have the privilege of seeing my grandchildren get nature lessons from both their parents and from me. Watching the life cycle of any creature is hard work, but also fun and educational. I have no doubt that a child will remember these lessons long after a video game has gone out of style!

picture #2 from Google Praying Mantis Facts


13 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Judy said,

    I read every word of this with fascination – thank you so much for sharing! I was also captivated by this insect. My children would keep one to bring to show their classroom. I would help them catch a fly in a bottle, which they would shake up a bit and then feed to the mantis. All the children would scream but it was educational. Afterwards, the mantis went free.
    I hope you write more nature articles because you have a gift for this. It would be great if you could take your old photos/slides and convert them to a digital format. I think there’s a lot of value in doing that.

    • 2

      beebeesworld said,

      I had 8 pictures in my article I printed on my document file, but they wouldnt print. I workd so long! I wwas afraid of loosing it , s I stuck with the two I had. Its late, Im tired. I just dont get the way you are supposed to put these wordpress articles together and it really limits my creativity-oh, well…Brenda

    • 4

      beebeesworld said,

      I have so many packs of film-my new equipment doesnt copy like the old film, but sometime I may try to make digital copies of some of my favorites. Thanks for sharing your memories….beebee

      • 5

        Judy said,

        My scanner can take negatives easily and create an image from that. I hope you’ll make digital copies someday – would love to see those pictures!

      • 6

        beebeesworld said,

        I havent really had much success with the scanner I have now-I havent tried very hard. I used to edit books for my dad, and had a great scanner,but that was a long time ago… beebee

  2. 7

    Very interesting study.

  3. 8

    Sandra Bennett said,

    Wonderful study….Inspiring…What dedication it must take to deliver this information, that most of us would never realize otherwise !

  4. 13

    beebeesworld said,

    great work-Thanks!

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