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Is it praying or ‘preying’ mantis?

About 1,800 species of praying mantids exist around the world. People often refer to any mantid as praying mantis, but mantises are part of a smaller group within the mantids.

They get their name because they fold their front legs under their head while waiting for a meal to wander by, giving them the appearance of praying.

They have long necks topped with a triangular head. This long neck allows the head to rotate 180 degrees, and their camouflage coloration allows them to blend into the background as they wait to ambush prey.

Praying mantis are carnivores that eat mainly insects and other small animals. Their front legs strike out and capture their prey. Long sharp spines on the upper insides of these legs allow them to hold on to their prey. The impaled prey is held firmly in place while being eaten.

The spines fit into a groove on the lower parts of the legs when not in use.

Gardeners often welcome praying mantises into their gardens but must remember they are not selective in what they eat. Along with harmful insects, they also will catch beneficial insects, including bees an butterflies. They’ve been known to eat spiders, frogs, lizards and even small birds. I was shocked to see one with a hummingbird!

Mating season is in the fall, with the female often practicing cannibalism, eating her mate after copulation. After mating, the female will lay groups of 12 to 400 eggs in a frothy liquid that turns to a hard protective shell called an ootheca. This is how these insects survive the winter, with small mantids emerging in the spring looking like a small version of their parents. Often, the first meal is a sibling.

It takes an entire summer for mantis to mature to adulthood. These egg masses are often preyed on by parasitoid wasps.

Egg cases are available to purchase, making this an interesting classroom activity. Keep in mind that egg cases kept indoors will hatch during the winter months whether you are prepared for them or not. From a single ootheca, several dozen to hundreds of nymphs can emerge.

Mantis needs a warm (70 to 90 degrees), spacious container with the humidity between 40 to 95 percent. A 10-gallon terrarium works well. Fruit flies, pinhead crickets and other small insects are excellent food for the young nymphs. As nymphs increase in size, larger prey can be provided.

Having large numbers of egg cases in your garden may not increase the population because mantises will move away to find unoccupied coverage and food sources. This is due to their cannibalistic nature, which limits the number of mantises in an area.

Folklore from many countries surround the praying mantis. The French once thought a praying mantis would point a lost child home. Africans considered it good luck if one landed on you. The Greeks called them “Mantes,” which means prophets. The Chinese write of the mantis as curing anything from impotence to goiter. They believed that roasting the egg cases and feeding them to their children will stop bed wetting.

See more about them and photos at http://go.osu.edu/mantids.

Baytos is an Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension Master Gardener volunteer.

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