Praying mantids are insects that have fascinated humans for centuries with their odd shape. They are also a master predator of the garden. Learn praying mantis facts and folklore.
Sometimes called a beneficial insect, the praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) is actually a generalist that preys on both bothersome insects and beneficial ones.
What Do Praying Mantids Eat?
- A carnivore, mantids dine primarily on insects like flies, crickets, moths, grasshoppers, and mosquitoes.
- They can even feast on prey over three times their size, including small animals such as frogs, lizards, and hummingbirds.
- Because of their voracious appetite for insects, praying mantids sometimes are considered a friend to farmers and gardeners as a natural form of pest control. But, keep in mind that they will eat the good bugs, too!
- The insects will even eat each other! The female will sometimes eats her mate just after—or even during—mating.
- Although they may eat other beneficial insects (and, occasionally, each other), their preference is for the sucking and cutting insects that do the greatest damage to crops.
Praying Mantis Facts
- Mantids are found on every continent except Antarctica. Of the 1,800 or so known species, most are between 1 to 3 inches in length. Some tropical ones may grow to 8 inches or more.
- Most praying mantids are able to fly, although some females might not be able to.
- Mantids have triangular heads and long, flexible necks bend easily, allowing them to turn their heads 180° from side to side, giving them a 300° field of vision. They can spot the slightest movement from 60 feet away.
- They have two large, compound eyes and three other simple eyes located between them.
- Masters of disguise, praying mantids are rarely seen. They are typically green or brown, but many species will take on the color of their habitat. They may mimic leaves, twigs, grass, and even ants; some tropical species so closely resemble flowers that other insects will land on them in search of nectar.
- Females will lay hundreds of eggs regulary and the nymphs which hatch looking much like smaller versions of their parents.
Nature’s Perfect Predators
- The strange praying stance of the praying mantis is not an act of reverence but instead the position the fierce predators take while patiently waiting to ambush other insects. They are the martial artists of the insect world.
- Their powerful forelegs are armed with rows of overlapping spikes to snare their prey and pin it in place while they devour it with strong, sharp mandibles. They use their entire arms like razor blades with reflexes that are so rapid that they are impossible to gauge with the naked eye.
- With flexible necks and two overdimensioned eyes, the praying mantis fixates the distance to their prey rapidly and three-dimensionally.
Non-Native Mantis and Hummingbirds
- Several non-native species, some introduced in the 1800s to help control insect pests, have become naturalized in North America. The Chinese mantis is one of the largest, growing to more than 4 inches long. This species in particular, perhaps in part because of its larger size, has been known on occasion to catch a hummingbird at a feeder, especially if it is very hungry, or mistakes the bird for a bee or other insect that seeks the sugar water. To avoid this unfortunate occurrence, move any hummingbird feeders away from surrounding bushes and branches, so that the mantis is easier for the birds to see. It also can help to add a broad cover over the top of the feeder, to discourage those mantids that can not fly. If you do see a mantis on the feeder, coax it onto a stick and move it gently away.
Praying Mantis Folklore
- The French once thought that a mantis would point a lost child home.
- In some parts of Africa, it is considered good luck if one of these curious creatures lands on you.
- The Greek word “mantis” means prophet or seer. Because of the way the insects hold up the fronts of their bodies and position their huge forelegs when at rest, it appears as though they are praying.
As with many of nature’s predators, hunters often become the hunted. The mantis’ natural enemies include birds, bats, spiders, snakes, and lizards. With so many enemies to worry about, perhaps praying mantids actually are saying their prayers!