The Praying Mantis: Predator of the Garden

Learn All About This Backyard Beneficial Insect!

By George and Becky Lohmiller
August 31, 2020
Praying Mantis

The praying mantid is an insect that has fascinated humans for centuries. A master predator in the garden, mantids have an abundance of lore surrounding them—including whether they eat hummingbirds. Here are some of our favorite facts and folklore about praying mantids!

Mantis or Mantid?

First of all: is it “mantis” or “mantid”? Technically speaking, “mantis” refers only to members of the genus Mantis, like the European mantis, Mantis religiosa. “Mantid” on the other hand, refers to any species. In common usage, however, the terms are essentially used interchangeably!

What Do Praying Mantids Eat?

  • Often considered a beneficial insect, praying mantids are actually “generalists” (i.e., willing to eat a variety of things) that prey on both bothersome insects and beneficial ones. 
  • 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—yes—even hummingbirds. 
  • Because of their voracious appetite for insects, praying mantids are sometimes considered a friend to farmers and gardeners, since they work well as a natural form of pest control. However, keep in mind that they will eat the good bugs, too!
  • These insects will even eat each other! In fact, praying mantids are famous for being cannibalistic: a female will sometimes eat a male just after—or even during—mating.
  • Although they may eat other beneficial insects (and, occasionally, each other), their preference is for the insects that coincidentally do the greatest damage to crops, such as grasshoppers, beetles, and other small insects.

Non-Native Mantids and Hummingbirds

Recently, mantids have gained some notoriety for preying on larger animals such as lizards or small birds. Generally, the species of mantids native to North America—including the Carolina mantid (Stagmomantis carolina)—are not large enough to take on prey as big as hummingbirds.

However, there are several non-native species—introduced in the 1800s to help control insect pests—that have become naturalized in North America. The Chinese mantis is one of the most widespread and the largest, growing up to 4 inches in length. This species in particular, perhaps in part because of its size, has been known on occasion to catch a hummingbird at a feeder, especially if it is very hungry or if it mistakes the bird for a bee or other insect that seeks the sugar water.

Chinese mantis
A Chinese mantid. Note the vertical stripes on the forehead and the light-green stripe down the wings.

To avoid this unfortunate occurrence, move any hummingbird feeders away from surrounding bushes and branches, so that the mantids are easier for the birds to see. It also can help to add a broad cover over the top of the feeder, to discourage mantids that cannot fly. If you do see a mantid on the feeder, coax it onto a stick and move it gently away.

The other prominent non-native mantid in North America is the European mantis, Mantis religiosa. This mantid is smaller than the Chinese mantid and is generally not a threat to hummingbirds.

How to Tell Carolina, European, and Chinese Mantids Apart

Wondering which mantid you’ve seen in your backyard? There are many, many species of mantids in North America, but the three mentioned in this article are the most widespread. Here are the key differences between these species:

Identifying Mantids

  Carolina Mantid European Mantid Chinese Mantid
Size 2-2½ inches Up to 3 inches 3-4 inches
Color Green or mottled gray/brown Light brown to dark green Green or brown, often with a green-yellow stripe down the wings
Identifying Features Females have short wings that don’t cover the entire length of their abdomen. Egg cases are flat, often laid on vertical surfaces.  Black and white “bull’s eye” markings can be seen under the front legs. Pattern of vertical stripes on the forehead (between the eyes). Egg cases are more globular, often laid on branches.

Carolina mantis
A Carolina mantid. Note the short wings and the lack of stripes on the forehead.

Facts About Praying Mantids

  • 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 species may grow to 8 inches or more, though!
  • 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 up to 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, flowers, grass, and even other insects. Some tropical species so closely resemble flowers that pollinators will land on them in search of nectar!
  • Females will lay hundreds of eggs regulary and the nymphs hatch out looking much like smaller versions of their parents.

Nature’s Perfect Predators

  • The strange praying stance of the praying mantid is not an act of reverence but rather the position that this fierce predators takes 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, which are used 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, praying mantids fixates the distance to their prey rapidly and in 3D. 

Praying Mantid Folklore

  • The French once thought that a praying mantid 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 for insight.

    As with many of nature’s predators, hunters often become the hunted. The mantid’s natural enemies include birds, bats, spiders, snakes, and lizards. With so many enemies to worry about, perhaps praying mantids actually are saying their prayers!

    Learn More

    Find out about other fascinating and beneficial insects like fireflies and dragonflies!

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    Reader Comments

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    Mantis

    How do they survive the winter? Can they survive inside the house in houseplants? Curious

    Praying Mantises

    The Editors's picture

    Most mantises have relatively short livespans—only about six months, from spring to early fall. In the fall, females lay an egg case containing hundreds of eggs in a sheltered location, from which baby mantis nymphs hatch in the spring. The nymphs spend the summer eating, growing, and breeding to eventually repeat the cycle. 

    They may survive for a little while indoors, but due to lack of food and their naturally short lifespans, they’re unlikely to make it through winter. 

    Along for the ride ...

    Living in the country a few years back, every spring when I mowed the lawn, a mantis (usually in the young stage) would hop a ride on the hood as if it was guiding me. Sometimes one would get on the steering wheel; I pretended it was driving. They were my buddies, I was proud, felt safe, and I truly miss them.

    Plural of mantis

    FYI - the plural of mantis is not mantis. It is Mantids, although mantises is becoming a little more common these days.

    PENALTY

    When I was a kid I had heard the same thing about killing a mantis (why would you?) as Bud mentions. It would make sense as it's a beneficial insect but I have no idea if it is or was ever true.

    REALLY???

    OMG!!! I think that my head is going to explode from these previous responses! LOL!

    Killing a Mantis

    When I was young, I was told by several people that there is a stiff fine for killing a Praying Mantis. Anyone know about this?

    Questions

    I have a brown greenish praymantus outside on my ac by window is it telling me im pregnant or is it telling me

    so I'm helping my buddy move

    so I'm helping my buddy move and I see one at his house then I come home and there are two here and they both land on me hmm

    Praying mantis

    They also will eat a wort off of you .When I was about thirteen my big brother sat and let one do that to him. My mom told me she didn't know why they did this but most older people she said new this.