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 email@example.com.
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.
So here's this praying mantis perched on top of a prickly pear cactus.
It's early morning and she's hungry.
A cabbage white butterfly, looking like a white-gowned princess in a medieval palace, flutters by and pauses on the prickly pear to seek some sunshine.
Oops! Fatal mistake. When you're seeking sun, do not do that in front of a predator.
Breakfast? Yes, that's what happened.
Before you feel sorry for the cabbage white butterfly, consider this: farmers who grow cole crops, such as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, would probably let out a shout of approval. That's because the cabbage white is considered a major pest of commercial cole crops. The butterfly lays her eggs--which are pale yellow to orange--in cole crops. The larvae, known as "green worms" or "green caterpillars," can cause major economic losses.
The cabbageworms have voracious appetites. They chew "large, irregular holes in leaves, born into heads, and drop greenish brown fecal pellets onto edible portions of the leaf," according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program's Pest Management Guidelines on "Imported Cabbageworm" (Pieris rapae).
In home gardens, the cabbage white is considered a minor pest, although gardeners aren't fond of cutting open a broccoli head only to see that cabbageworms got there first.
At UC Davis, the common cabbage white butterfly assumes a more scientific role. Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, hosts an annual "Butterfly for a Beer" contest. The first person in the three-county area of Sacramento, Yolo and Solano who brings in the first cabbage white of the year wins a pitcher of beer. It's all in the interest of science.
Shapiro, who does long-term studies of butterfly life cycles and climate, says the cabbage white is “typically one of the first butterflies to emerge in late winter. “Since 1972, the first flight has varied from Jan. 1 to Feb. 22, averaging about Jan. 20.”
The 2016 winner was UC Davis graduate student Jacob Montgomery, who caught the cabbage white outside his home in West Davis.
Shapiro, who has monitored the Central California population of butterflies for more than four decades, says the cabbage white is now emerging a week or so earlier on average than it did 30 years ago here.
As for the praying mantis, the cabbage white butterfly was just...breakfast.