It's 6 a.m.
Do you know where your praying mantids are?
Well, yes. Two of them.
Just before dawn broke, we walked around our pollinator (and prey) garden and spotted a pencil-thin male mantis, Stagmomantis limbata, silhouetted on the milkweed. And then, directly above him, nearly hidden--another silhouette. Could it be? It was: a fine-looking gravid female mantis.
They clung silently to the milkweed, neither moving but fully aware of the other's presence.
Then the sun blushed through the trees and sprayed them with light.
The female began advancing toward the male. The male kept his distance (and his head).
Then what happened? Did they have a close encounter? Did the male lose his head?
No one knows. Sigh. An obligation beckoned and off we went to fulfill it. Sometimes life gets in the way of a good story ending or a bad story ending, depending on your point of view.
However, we do know this: The next day, the female was still there, but the male was not.
He may have lost his head.
We do know that a honey bee lost hers.
When you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...Rudyard Kipling
And who isn't fascinated by those who study them, rear them and share their knowledge with others?
Meet “Mantis Master Keeper” Andrew Pfeifer, of Monroe County, N.C. He keeps about 70 mantids in his collection, educates others about this fascinating insect at Bugfest shows, and administers the Facebook page, “Mantis Keepers,” known as world's largest active mantid community, with nearly 7000 members.
“Mantids fascinate me for their predatory behavior more than anything else,” Pfeifer says, “but I also love to see the extreme morphology that many species have adapted to better camouflage in their environment. I've been fascinated with mantids and other arthropods since I was young, but have been keeping and breeding many species for about six years. “In that time I have kept over 25 different species from around the world in any shape, size, and color.”
Peruse the Mantis Keepers page and you'll be amazed at the wealth of information you'll find. Post a photo of a mantis and he and other administrators will identify it promptly. It's difficult to realize that Andrew Pfeifer is only 17 and a high school senior.
“Andrew has put together a terrific resource for anyone interested in mantids,” commented Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis. “We have quite a number of students and members of the public who love mantids and we point them to him.”
Pfeifer hopes to enroll at North Carolina State University, majoring in—of course!—entomology. Keenly interested in drawing public interest about these incredible insects, he coordinates the mantid exhibit at Virginia Tech's Hokie Bugfest every October, a project he began five years ago. He also assists at the larger North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences' Bugfest, held in Raleigh, N. C.
“Kids love them," Pfeifer says. "That's why so many enjoy my exhibit every year, as I let the kids handle them with my supervision.”
Pfeifer says his collection on mantids "is a a bit on the low side for the number of species with Phyllocrania paradoxa, Parasphendale affinis, and Hymenopus coronatus." He usually has about 60 mantids, but “that's subject to change with either new hatches, new species entering my collection, or sale of young nymphs to keep my collection running smoothly.”
“I have two new and rare species coming soon, Plistospilota guineensis and Epaphrodita musarum, which will increase the number to about 70 individuals. This doesn't include all the arachnids and other arthropods in my collection.”
At any given locality, Pfeifer says he can usually find a mantis in about 10 minutes if one is in the area. “Depending on the species and location, mantids can be quite easy to find. Species such as Tenodera sinensis seem to love man-made structure around disturbed and weedy areas. During the late summer, many mantids will hang out on goldenrod and other flowering plants, as they are after the many pollinators that visit the blooms. Male mantids may also be collected at light traps during the breeding season when they fly at night.”
“Adult male mantids typically begin flying after about a week or so from reaching maturity," Pfeifer says. "Most fly at night, and actually have a single ear between the second and third pair of legs that is designed to evade bats and their sonar. Females are not capable of flight for most species, and most that can fly are for short distances. Males usually fly for a couple hundred feet at a time.”
Mantids eat a wide variety of insects and other arthopods, Pfefier says. YouTube videos show mantids catching and eating hummingbirds. He's seen them take scorpions. And as "Monarch Moms" and "Monarch Dads" know, the mantid diet includes caterpillars as well as adult butterflies.
“They essentially eat anything,” Pfeifer says. “Moths and flies are among the favorites for my specimens. Grasshoppers often incorporate a large part of an adult female's diet. I've fed mine just about anything that isn't a vertebrate. They are not put off by insect defenses such as chemical sprays or vomiting, and are well equipped to handle things such as bees and wasps. They can deal with quite a few insect defenses, even able to disable stingers.”
Pfeifer usually feeds his collection cockroaches (Blaptica dubia or Blatta lateralis).
It's a myth that colors determine the gender of a mantis. “Many myths surround the mantids, most of which are merely superstition or made up,” he notes. “Colors do not determine the sex of the mantis, with both males and females capable of being different colors. Mantids are capable of changing the color of their body, but only after molting. A green mantid can turn brown in just one molt.”
It's also a myth that male mantids always lose their head during courtship or after mating. “Mantids can exhibit cannibalism during courtship, but this is not a common occurrence,” he points out. “It mostly occurs when the female has not had good access to larger prey, and needs the nutrition for egg development. I've had males mate with multiple females without incident, with a male Phyllocrania paradoxa holding the record at eight copulations.”
Temperate species can hatch, mature, breed, and die in four months in the North, but normally mantids live around six months to a year depending on species,” Pfeifer says, noting that “two of my female Phyllocrania paradoxa are going on 14 months old and are still in good health.”
Although mantids are not endangered, there is one threatened species in Southern Europe, he points out. “They are not illegal to keep or kill, but this one was used to avoid people harming them without need.”
He's kept several unusual native species found in the East, such as Brunneria borealis and Gonatista grisea. “Our native species are quite interesting, and not seen as often as the introduced. Most natives are only found down South, in states such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona. There are over twenty native species, with my favorite being the Texas unicorn mantid (Phyllovates chlorophaea).”
California has only a handful of mantid species, Pfeifer says. The natives include Stagmomantis limbata, Stagmomantis californica and Litaneutria minor. Introduced ones: Mantis religiosa, Tenodera sinensis and Iris oratoria. “Typically you have pockets for native species where you see only one,” he says.
Pfeifer welcomes visitors to the Mantis Keepers site. The introductory statement says it well: “Beauty and charisma of the beloved mantis...it's what binds us all.”
A partial solar eclipse is about to happen in Vacaville, Calif.
I am watching the insects: the honey bees nectaring on the African blue basil, an orbweaver spider munching on its prey, an assassin bug poised on a tropical milkweed, and a praying mantis lurking beneath a showy milkweed leaf.
Today (Aug. 21) is the long-awaited Great American Eclipse. The totality path will begin at 9 a.m. in Oregon, and stretch across the country to South Carolina.
Hmm, I wonder, how will the bugs in our pollinator garden react to a partial eclipse?
It won't be drastic, I predict. And it wasn't.
The partial eclipse in Vacaville began at 9:02 a.m. and reached its maximum (70 percent coverage of the sun) at 10:16. It ended at 11:38 am., a duration of two hours and 36 minutes.
The bees foraged before, during and after the eclipse, primarily on the African blue basil, which is usually covered with bees. During the height of the eclipse, however, as the skies darkened, a little more than half remained. After the eclipse, when the temperature increased and the wind ceased, the number of bees returned to normal.
"Honey bees tend to act like night is falling if the eclipse takes out quite a bit of the sunlight," says honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus and president of the Western Apicultural Society. "Then they 'wake back up' afterwards."
Despite the eclipse, the spider kept eating its prey. (Sure hope it wasn't that blue dragonfly, Libellula luctuosa, "the widow skimmer" I saw yesterday.) The praying mantis kept lurking. The assassin bug raised its antennae. And the bees--although fewer of them--just kept foraging.
Two stink bugs opted to procreate on the bluebeard, Caryopteris x clandonensis. A Gulf Fritillary fluttered by and stopped to sip nectar from the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). The assassin bug crawled higher on the milkweed, poised for an ambush.
The spider tugged its prey beneath a leaf, abandoning its web. Well, that's that, I thought.
Not so. The sticky web snagged a honey bee while the spider was polishing off its first prey. Okay, spider, you've already had your breakfast. You don't need a second helping. Not today."
I freed the struggling bee and off it buzzed to forage another day.
A partial eclipse, but a full escape...
Everybody eats in the pollinator garden. Everybody.
The pollinators in our garden in Vacaville, Calif., sip the nectar. They include honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, European wool carder bees, hover flies and assorted butterflies.
The predators eat, too.
It works like this: the pollinators eat the nectar; the predators eat the pollinators. Nature's way.
Today we watched a well-fed praying mantis, Stagmomantis limbata (as identified by Andrew Pfeifer)--look, ma, there's a "mom" in Stagmomantis--lurking beneath the leaf of a showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa. She was apparently waiting to snag a monarch butterfly, but agreeable to a menu change. So camouflaged was Ms. Mantis that she appeared to be an extension of the leaf. There she clung, motionless but oh-so-alert.
A monarch fluttered by, landing out of reach. Not so for the longhorn bees nectaring on the nearby African blue basil.
A longhorn bee, probably a Melissodes agilis, just wasn't quick enough to escape the Usain Bolt-like swiftness and the grasp of the spiked forelegs.
Ms. Mantis polished off the bee.
After her meal, Ms. Mantis climbed higher on the milkweed, slipping beneath another leaf to look for signs of "meal movement" below.
Well, at least she didn't nail that monarch. Not today.
Any day's a good day when you find the ootheca (egg case) of a praying mantis in your yard. It's much better than finding an Easter egg.
Ootheca comes from the Greek word "oo," meaning egg and the Latin word, "theca," meaning a cover or container.
A few weeks ago, we spotted an ootheca (below) on our lavender bush. It's sturdily attached to a stem about a foot off the ground. Note the small hole on the right near the top, the exit hole of a parasitoid, perhaps a wasp or fly, according to Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
We're not counting our eggs until they hatch but we saw another ootheca on our lantana. And another one on a thin branch of an olive tree. Mama Mantis knows the best spots.
When springlike temperatures greet us, we expect some 100 to 200 praying mantids to hatch or emerge from each egg case. The nymphs will be hungry and will eat everything in sight, including their siblings. They do that, you know. No love lost. No brotherly love or sisterly love here. Bon appétit!
Then the young mantids will nab a few aphids and flies and other small critters until they are able to ambush and snag much larger prey, including honey bees, sweat bees, bumble bees, syprhid flies, and butterflies. And sometimes, a hummingbird...
If you see them hanging around your hummingbird feeder, they're not there for the sugar. They're not vegetarians; they're carnivores.