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.
It's a sin to kill a mockingbird, wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee in her classic novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing except make music for us to enjoy," one of her characters, Miss Maudie, wisely observed. "They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corn cribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Harper Lee's work came to mind yesterday when we saw a praying mantis devouring a monarch butterfly on our butterfly bush, located next to several milkweed plants. We watched the clipped monarch wings flutter down and land among the leaves.
It was a female monarch. She may have stopped to sip some nectar during her egg-laying mission. The hungry predator ambushed her.
The shock of seeing a delicate monarch gripped between spiked forelegs stuns you, especially when you've just reared two monarchs and have two more to go.
"Umm, do you mind?" we wanted to ask the mantis. "Please eat the cabbage white butterflies, stink bugs and aphids, not the monarchs."
Praying mantids are considered beneficial insects, but all we've seen them eat are honey bees, sunflower bees, butterflies and an occasional Gulf Fritillary caterpillar. However, they do eat ants, wasps, flies, and moths, as well. The larger praying mantids prey on hummingbirds.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation summed up the monarch decline well on its website: "Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) of North America are renowned for their long-distance seasonal migration and spectacular winter gatherings in Mexico and California. The monarch butterfly population has recently declined to dangerously low levels. In the 1990s, estimates of up to one billion monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City, and more than one million monarchs overwintered in forested groves on the California Coast. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only about 56.5 million monarchs remain, representing a decline of more than 80% from the 21 year average across North America."
Okay, praying mantis. We know. It was only one. You have to eat, too. You needed the protein to lay your ootheca. But have you ever considered how tasty and prevalent cabbage white butterflies are?
Whenever folks post photos of praying mantids, their readers expect to see prey.
You know, the hapless bee or butterfly that made the fatal mistake of getting too close to those spiked forelegs.
This praying mantis (below) appeared to have been a hapless victim of another predator. It, still however, kept that praying mantis pose as it tried to find prey on a blanketflower (Gaillardia). And it still rotated its head 180 degrees.
Praying mantis belong to the order, Mantodea, which includes more than 2400 species and about 430 genera in 15 families, according to Wikipedia.
"They are distributed worldwide in temperate and tropical habitats. Most of the species are in the family Mantidae," Wikipedia tells us. "Females sometimes practice sexual cannibalism, eating their mate after, or occasionally decapitating the male just before mating."
Did you know that the closest relatives of mantids are termites and cockroaches (Blattodea)? And that they are sometimes "confused with stick insects (Phasmatodea) and other elongated insects such as grasshoppers (Orthoptera), or other insects with raptorial forelegs such as mantisflies (Mantispidae)?" Check out Wikipedia's entry for praying mantids.
Praying mantids live about a year. This one lived about five hours before it expired.
But not before it gave a honey bee the fright of her life.
The hummingbirds seemed apprehensive.
They'd fly to the feeder, stop in mid-air, and turn back.
What was keeping them from the feeder?
A closer look revealed what the casual observer wouldn't notice: a praying mantis.
Was the mantis a predator or the prey? Hummingbirds eat insects, and the larger mantids eat hummingbirds.
We waited to see what would happen next.
A hummer opted to take a drink. The praying mantis, sprawled out on the feeder in a position we've never seen before, didn't move.
It later moved to another spot on the feeder.
The next morning, no mantis. Gone.
Maybe it moved to another location. Or maybe another predator nailed it.
Meanwhile, check out a photo published in National Geographic that shows a praying mantis grasping a hummer. It's not for the squeamish.
And YouTube shows numerous videos of mantids attacking hummers. Watch this video of multiple hummers trying to dodge a praying mantis.
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There is such a thing as a free lunch. And a free breakfast. And a free dinner.
And a free snack.
That is, if you're a freeloader fly.
If you've ever watched a spider snare a bee or other insect in its web, and wrap it like a fit-to-be-tied holiday present, you've probably seen tiny little freeloader flies dining on the prey.
They are so tiny--usually 1 to 3 mm in length--that it takes a keen eye to spot them if they're not moving. The eyes are often red though "this need not be obvious because many species of the flies are small and dusky."
The close-up below is a hand-held photo taken with a Canon EOS 7D with a MPE-65mm lens.
Freeloader flies belong to the family Milichiidae. The close-up below may be in the genus Desmometopa, but it's difficult to tell by the image, says Martin Hauser, senior insect biosystematist with the Plant Pest Diagnostics, California Department of Food and Agriculture.
As it turned out, the spider dropped its prey and the freeloaders flies didn't have to leave the table.