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.
Oh, if we could just engage in some menu planning and preparation!
How often have you thought of that after watching praying mantids dine on honey bees, bumble bees, monarchs, Western tiger swallowtails and other beneficial insects?
"Please don't eat the pollinators!" I plead, tongue in cheek. "Why not grab a tasty stink bug?"
Well, last Saturday afternoon, Nov. 19 at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, that's exactly what a mantid did. It nailed a stink bug, held it between its spiked forelegs and ate it, not unlike an Thanksgiving-Day interaction between a two-legged human being and a turkey drumstick.
UC Davis entomology graduate student Charlotte Herbert happened by and took a selfie. Serendipity: one of her class assignments was to take a selfie with an insect.
No doubt she was the only one in her class who took a selfie with a praying mantis eating a stink bug!
The occasion: a Bohart open house themed "Uninvited Guests: Common Pests Found in the Home."
The Bohart Museum, home of a global collection of nearly eight million insect specimens (plua a live "petting zoo" and a gift shop) is now gearing up for its next open house, "Parasite Palooza: Botflies, Fleas and Mites, Oh My!" set from 1 to 4 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 22 in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building, Crocker Lane. The open houses are free and open to the public. See schedule.
The Bohart Museum's regular hours are from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. The museum is closed to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and on major holidays. Admission is free. More information on the Bohart Museum is available by contacting (530) 752-0493 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
It apparently originated during World War II. Remember the 1942 film, "The Flying Tigers," starring John Wayne as Capt. Jim Gordon?
John Wayne, aka Jim Gordon, asks a Rangoon hotel clerk about a missing plane: "Any word on that flight yet?"
The hotel clerk replies that Japanese aircraft attacked the plane, but "She's coming in on one wing and a prayer."
Then there's the 1944 film, "Wing and a Prayer," about "the heroic crew of an American carrier in the desperate early days of World War II in the Pacific theater" (Wikipedia).
Fast forward to today, but this time with migratory monarchs. It seems that, they, too, fly on a "a wing and a prayer."
Over the last two months, we've seen dozens of migratory monarchs-often four or five at a time--stop for flight fuel in our 600-square foot pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Many arrive in poor condition, their wings gouged, shredded and tattered. Still, they manage to sip nectar from Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia), butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Lantana, and continue their hazardous journey.
Imagine how incredibly difficult it is for these tiny, fluttering insects to weather the elements, not to mention evading birds, praying mantids and other predators.
Not all will make it. But look for some to arrive in the overwintering spots along coastal California "on a wing and a prayer."
If you're rearing monarchs or offering them a “way station” of nectar-producing flowers in your yard, there's one thing you don't want to see: A praying mantis nailing a monarch.
That's when the "pollinator friendly garden" seems more like a "predator friendly garden." It's not by chance. It's by choice. Like bank robbers who go where the money is, mantids go where the food is. Unfortunately for those of us who favor pollinators over predators, they patiently wait for bee breakfast and butterfly brunch. And they're as cunning as they are quick.
It's an insect-eat-insect world out there.
It is Oct. 23, a bright, breezy autumn day. Pacific Northwest monarchs are migrating to their overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove and are fluttering down to nectar on Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), butterfly bush (Buddleia), and Lantana. Flight fuel.
But wait! There's a monarch on the butterfly bush that isn't moving. Why is she not moving? Oh, she's struggling. Oh, she's in the clutches of a praying mantis.
The mantis is perfectly camouflaged amid the green vegetation. She is gravid and an ootheca is in her future. Her bloated abdomen wiggles like the leaf she resembles, Her spiked forelegs, like thorny rose stems, circle her prey. Oh, she's piercing a wing...
This migratory monarch won't be joining her buddies in Santa Cruz.
Final score: Mantis, 1; Monarch, 0.
Sometimes the unexpected happens.
Take the case of the female praying mantis delivered to the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis, for an educational display. The Bohart, home of some eight million insect specimens, also has a live "petting zoo"-- which houses tarantulas, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and walking sticks.
And now: a female praying mantis.
UC Davis entomology student Justin "Wade" Spencer begins feeding and caring for her.
One day he wonders if she is gravid (pregnant). So when another entomology student, Minsu Kang, brings in a male praying mantis, Spencer makes sure that the female receives an extra portion of roach nymphs because of the possibility--well, a little possibility--that the female might lop off his head.
So Spencer feeds her more yummy roach nymphs. All is well.
Finally, it's time to meet. The male praying mantis climbs inside the habitat.
The male looks interested. He takes one step toward her. She doesn't move. He takes another step. No response. “Oh good,” thinks Spencer.
Then she responds. “Food! Food! Food!" She promptly grabs him with her spiked forelegs and lops off his head. Then she devours him. All of him.
Well, almost. The owner of the male praying mantis returns. "Where's my praying mantis?” Kang asks.
Wade holds up a wing and some frass.
Sometimes the unexpected happens.