Attending the Larimer County Humane Society’s Top Cat and Tails gala, I was impressed by the devotion humans feel toward animals and their creative ways to raise money to care for them. The live auction had many items of interest, from Caribbean condo stays to baskets of wine, but what captured my fancy was the offer of having your pets’ photo plastered to a billboard. For the right price, Fluffy will be the spokes-animal of an adoption ad for three months on the highway.
Several of my dinner companions were already shaking their heads before I got the words out, knowing the type of pets I keep. “A tarantula would be perfect for that billboard,” I said, musing on the possibilities. “But right now the only pet I have is a praying mantid. I wonder if that would help them raise pet adoption awareness?” Those at the table who didn’t know me stopped chewing, looking mildly horrified.
“She’d be easy to photograph; her wing is damaged and she can’t fly. That’s why the humans rescued her before giving her to me – they didn’t think she’d survive,” I said, plying their sympathy for a wounded creature. But good intentions took me too far; enthusing about her laying an egg case didn’t elicit maternal ooohs and ahhhs I’d banked on.
“How many eggs are in that egg case?” asked one guest, staring at me as if he were seated with a member of the Addams Family. “About 200,” I said, “but they’re hungry when they hatch and go after each other, so you really end up with about six fat, happy youngsters.” Discussing insects and cannibalism over dinner is one reason why I’m not invited to many formal events.
The insect in question is a European mantid (Mantis religiosa), picked up by well-meaning people who feared for her safety in winter. In this, the good Samaritans are right; these insects, imported for biological control, only survive our winters when it’s mild, although a few of the toughest manage to get through to spring. Thus, the European mantid is found throughout much of Colorado.
It’s a big bug, measuring three-and-a-half inches long, green with a “bull’s-eye” marking under the front legs. These forelegs are spectacular: long, broad, edged in spikes and tipped with claws to hold prey close to feed. “I’ve had mantids I can hear eating, crunching their grasshoppers as they chew through the exoskeleton,” I said. Oddly, this tidbit of information had the table guests looking for vacant seats elsewhere, and my spouse started pressing his knee against my leg in a subtle warning that I was scaring people.
The eggs she laid are encased in an insulated, foamy material that hardens and gives them the appearance of a Styrofoam peanut. Mantids lay these most often on hard surfaces such as rocks, pipes, fences, and plant stalks. In spring, they hatch, and hundreds of mantid nymphs emerge, feeding on soft insects at first, then as they grow, moving on to larger prey.
Should you try rearing mantids at home, keep them in separate terrariums. If you have an adult female, give her a stick on which to lay the egg case, then move her into another cage; egg cases need a cold period and are best stored for a few weeks in an unheated place such as a shed or on the north side of homes. Bring the egg cases indoors to warm them to room temperature and encourage hatching.
Feed the nymphs small insects, such as fruit flies, midges and small flies. As they grow, feeder crickets from pet stores work well. Mantids need water, so mist the interior surface of their container once per week. Release your mantids into the garden once days are warm. But take my advice, and keep your pet information to yourself.
Non-gardeners just don’t understand.
- Aliens on Earth: Macro Pictures by Igor Siwanowicz (oddstuffmagazine.com)
- Interesting insects: Mantids (abbotlab.wordpress.com)