In previous episodes we learned how European hornets sought winter refuge and learned about the supercooling powers of woolly bear caterpillars. This week we visit three endearing mantises who survive winter’s chill as eggs tucked cozily into egg cases called oothecae. In autumn, a female mantis deposits one or more oothecae on upright vegetation such as the branch of a tree or a stem of a meadow plant. Within each brown styrofoam-like egg case more than 100 brothers and sisters chill out for the winter. With the return of warm weather and small insects in spring, tiny mantises hatch and emerge from the egg case to search for prey.
The name “mantis” stems from the ancient Greeks who used mantis to describe a soothsayer, one that could see into the future. One of my favorite six-legged soothsayers is Mantis religiosa, a native of Europe where it goes by the name of praying mantis. Since its introduction to North America in the 1890’s, this magnificent creature has spread throughout much of the United States and it is now distributed east of the Mississippi and northward into Canada. The European mantis is readily identified by the black and white “target” marking on it’s inside upper foreleg.
Another common exotic predator, the Chinese mantis, Tenodera sinensis, was discovered more than a century ago on October 16, 1897 when Mr. Joseph Hindermyer found a large insect “resting on the upper part of this tomato vine” in Mt. Airy, a suburb of Philadelphia. Fortunately, Philip Laurent, Hindermyer’s neighbor and a member of The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, recognized this large insect as an extraordinary mantis and learned that it was an exotic species known from China and Japan. How it arrived in Mt. Airy remains shrouded in mystery, but Laurent noted that a large nursery, Meehan and Sons, in nearby Germantown procured many plants from China and Japan. Could it be that this marvelous predator arrived as an embryo in an egg case on a Japanese maple? Perhaps, and in the intervening century the Chinese mantis has enjoyed many delectable treats ranging from unfortunate mates to one of its favorite meals, an old friend from Asia, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. Several folks have noted its predilection for these stinky home invaders, which are consumed with great gusto.
A gorgeous Carolina mantis waits for a meal or perhaps a mate who might be a dinner guest.
European and Chinese mantises are well-known sit and wait predators and kin to other mantises such as our native Carolina mantis, Stagmomantis carolina. This smaller grey or brown mantis ranges from New Jersey, south to Florida and west to Arizona. Like other mantis species, Carolina mantises eat a wide variety of insects and spiders found in gardens and landscapes.
If an unwitting female mantis happens to deposit her ootheca on the bough of a Christmas tree, don’t be surprised to see hundreds of tiny mantises decorating your tree before the arrival of New Year. While this rambunctious brood will cause you no harm, with no other prey available their wanton acts of cannibalism clearly violate the joyful spirit of the holiday season. So, if your holiday tradition includes bringing an evergreen tree or other vegetation into your home, invest a moment for a quick inspection. If you discover unexpected ornaments in the form of oothecae, be sure to carefully pluck them off and put them outdoors where they will deliver a surprise for unsuspecting prey next spring.
We thank Dr. Shrewsbury, who provided the inspiration for this episode. Two delightful articles, “A species of Orthoptera” by P. Laurent, and “Ecological Consequences of Food Limitation for Adult Mantids (Tenodera ardifolia sinensis Saussure) by R. M. Eisenberg, L. E. Hurd and J. A. Bartley, were used to prepare this episode.
To learn more about mantises, please visit the following web sites: