Each summer the Howard Conservancy in Woodstock, Maryland hosts an evening of fun, adventure, and insects. In years past, snappy titles for this event have included “Bugs and Brews”, “Bugs & Bees and Daiquiris”, and “Monarchs and Mojitos.” This year’s event on August 16, entitled “Mantises and Martinis”, promises to be an evening of entertainment filled with bug tales and a suburban safari in the meadows of the Conservancy.
Watch as dozens of tiny mantises hatch from their egg case on a bright spring morning. Scatter quickly lest your siblings eat you!
Mantises are some of Mother Nature’s most fascinating predators. Not long ago, following the emergence of periodical cicadas, a reporter asked if the female cicada got to “eat the head off the male after they mated.” I informed her that this extravagant behavior was reserved for only a few of our most colorful insects, one of which is the praying mantis. Fortunately, I bumped into a ULM (Unusually Large Mantis) in my back yard one evening. After convincing her not to eat my head (I whispered that I was not her species), I posed the “head-eating” question to her. She told me that dinner and a date were always fun for a girl but that most guy mantises were, well, just a little short in the brain department. She assured me that the guy was not always on the menu but by eating the head of the suitor either during or after mating, a girl mantis could be sure of a high quality meal to help nurture the eggs developing in her ovaries – dinner and a date.
One study suggests that sometimes the guys are a bit shy over this whole mating business. Who wouldn’t be? Heck, this beguiling creature is a large predator. What better way to eliminate the source of these fears then simply removing the timid one’s head? In the mantis world some tasks, including mating, can be successfully accomplished without much thought, and in this case even without a head. All well for the girl, but what’s in it for the guy? To quote the great philosopher, Meat Loaf, these mantis guys will “do anything for love” and it seems that he will even “do that.” Research shows that by making the ultimate sacrifice, the proud and sometimes dead father ensures that his genes are passed along and his embryos have plenty of food to develop in the womb of his bride. With this, I bade the mantis good hunting and adieu. Sexual cannibalism, the eating of one’s mate, is not necessarily the rule for mantises. Several authorities agree that this is more of an exception, sometimes an artifact of laboratory studies, and in nature males lose body parts or life in about one-third of romantic interludes. So, what then do mantises eat? In my garden young mantises eat small flies, crickets, and sometimes each other. Large mantises capture and eat other large and sometimes beneficial insects including pollinators such as bees, butterflies, flies, beetles and, yes, there are accounts of them capturing and eating humming birds. Yikes!
One of my favorite praying mantis stories involves the Chinese praying mantis and the nefarious home invader, the brown marmorated stink bug. Let’s travel back in time more than a century to October 16, 1897 when a Mr. Joseph Hindermyer discovered a large insect “resting on the upper part of his tomato vines” 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 to be a rather extraordinary mantis and later discovered that it was an exotic species known from China and Japan. How it arrived in Mt. Airy remains forever shrouded in mystery, but Laurent noted that a large nursery, Meehan and Sons, in nearby Germantown had procured many plants from China and Japan. Could it be that this marvelous predator arrived as a stowaway, perhaps as an embryo in an egg case on a Japanese maple? Fast forward a century to the mid-1990’s, and the brown marmorated stink bug arrives in the US less than 60 miles from Mt. Airy in Allentown, PA. The recent dramatic decline of stink bugs in Maryland over the last several years is in part related to the fact that several of our indigenous predators, parasitoids, and pathogens are now using brown marmorated stink bugs as a source of food. Prompted by this discovery, I decided that it was time to have a reunion between these two historical acquaintances from the east – the Chinese praying mantis and the Asian brown marmorated stink bug. Like many reunions I have attended, meeting old acquaintances can be fraught with joy and despair. In the case of the Chinese mantis, the reunion with the brown marmorated stink bug was gastronomic joy. She consumed a dozen stink bugs in quick succession before nibbling only half of unlucky stink bug # thirteen. As for the stink bugs, well, let’s just say their reunion was filled with short-lived despair. You see, the hungry Chinese mantis mercifully devoured the stink bugs head first. The reunion between the Chinese mantis and the Asian stink bug evoke Hannibal Lecter’s famous quote “I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner.”
The reunion between two old acquaintances from Asia, the Chinese mantis and the brown marmorated stink bug, was a happy one for the mantis but not so much for the stink bug. My favorite part of this video appears at the end as the fastidious mantis tidies up after her meal.
The chances of encountering a mantis on a late summer walk in a meadow are excellent, so please go for a stroll. And gentlemen, just be glad that you are not of the same species as the mantis and that mantises are not six feet tall!
Thanks to the bug-friendly folks at the Howard Conservancy for providing inspiration for this episode. Come and enjoy “Mantises and Martinis!” at the Howard Conservancy on August 16th if you can. Several articles including “Buzzwords, A Prayer Before Dining” by May Berenbaum, “Sexual cannibalism increases male material investment in offspring: quantifying terminal reproductive effort in a praying mantis” by William D. Brown and Katherine L. Barry, “Sexual cannibalism in the praying mantid, Mantis religiosa: a field study” by S.E. Lawrence, and “A species of Orthoptera” by P. Laurent were consulted for this episode.