You never know what you'll see when you're strolling through the 100-acre UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, a treasure to students, faculty, staff and visitors.
Case in point: For the last several months, we've been admiring a Mexican grass tree, Dasylirion longissimum, a 10-foot tall drought-tolerant plant with long, needle-like leaves radiating from its trunk. So perfect. So exquisite. Kinetic art at its finest. Indeed, it's often described as an "architectural wonder" in the plant world. Scores of horticulturists in California and the southwest United States favor it as their focal point for their xeriscape landscape projects.
The plant is native to the Chihuahuan Desert, which extends from West Texas, through parts of New Mexico and Arizona, and into much of the central and northern portions of the Mexican Plateau. It can tower 15 feet in height.
Last week we noticed something different about its presence in the UC Davis Arboretum: a brown clump clinging to the faded green wiry spikes.
Could it be? It was. A praying mantis egg case or ootheca.
To protect it from "egg gatherers," we won't indicate the exact location. But it is clear evidence that a female praying mantis was there and she, no doubt, ambushed and devoured honey bees, syrphid flies and butterflies before mating and producing the egg case.
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.
We usually begin seeing sizable mantids around July and continuing through October. We photographed this one, a Stagmomantis limbata, perched on showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) on Oct. 3, 2017 in Vacaville, Calif., as she nailed unsuspecting prey. In this case, a honey bee.
Her egg case is probably around somewhere....but she didn't lay it on our milkweed....or our Mexican grass tree....
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.
Nobody lost their head today.
Oh, in the people world, all across our nation's workplaces, they did. Eyes rolled, tempers flared, outbursts erupted and some angry assailants went into what my ol' journalism professor aptly described as "a blithering rage." Now, there are rages and then there are rages. But there is only one "blithering rage."
But in the insect world, nobody lost their head, at least not in our bee garden.
A gravid praying mantis nestled in the lavender patch suddenly found herself with company. The camouflaged mama-to-be proved difficult to see: she looked like a cross between a thick brown twig and a dried-up blossom. Her companion, a lean green machine bent on spreading some DNA, approached her. He resembled a thin blade of green grass. Now you see him, now you don't. Where'd he go? Oh, there he is.
The two made quite a couple. A bloated Lady of the Lavender and a young agile Mr. Mantis who could have easily graced the cover of the Gentlemen's Quarterly.
We watched them for several hours as they moved from the lavender patch to the sedum. Butterflies fluttered overhead, and honey bees nectared from flowers just inches away. The couple ignored them.
We were positive that someone was going to lose his head. A "gotcha" moment. A little extra protein. A healthy ootheca that would not be denied.
It never happened.
The last time we saw Mr Mantis, his head was firmly attached to his body, thank you.
Whether you call them "praying" mantis or "preying" mantis, one thing is for sure: they are difficult to find.
Tucked away in vegetation and as quiet as "the proverbial mouse" (except praying mantids are more quiet than the "proverbial" mice), they are an eye exercise in "Find me!"
As autumn approaches, our little bee garden is nearing the end of its life. The Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and lavender are fading rapidly. However, honey bees and other pollinators continue to forage, and the mantids are still hungry. The female mantids, mothers to be, need more high-quality food. Ootheca!
We're all accustomed to seeing praying mantids grab their struggling prey with their spiked forelegs and munch away. Usually that movement alerts us to their whereabouts.
But have you ever just searched for mantids in their habitat? See if you can find them in these photos.
Find the praying mantis!
Rita LeRoy, the self-described "Farm Keeper" at the Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo, takes amazing photos.
We recently wrote about the farm, part of the Vallejo City Unified School District, when we visited it during the annual spring festival.
LeRoy, who has worked for the Vallejo school district for 25 years, teaches students about nature and nutrition through hands-on farm lessons involving cooking, gardening, insect appreciation, and animal care. Founded in 1974, the Loma Vista Farm is described on its website as a 5-acre outdoor classroom that provides hands-on educational activities involving plants and animals for children of all ages and abilities,
But back to Rita LeRoy. She is an avid entomological enthusiast, an insect photographer, and a member of the Pollinator Posse.
She recently posted a photo on Facebook of several praying mantids emerging from their ootheca, a sight folks rarely see. She ca[tired this image in the Loma Vista Farm greenhouse. Indeed, we rarely see the camouflaged adults unless they're moving around in the vegetation or snaring prey.
With her permission, we thought we'd share her amazing photo--from a distance and then a portion of it enlarged.
We have four oothecas in our family bee garden but never once have we seen any action. They are silent as stones.
However, we know the praying mantids are out there. We see them in our yard periodically. These are the survivors, the ones who made it past the sibling-eat-sibling stage and the mating ritual of female-eat-male, also known as "off with the head." They're cannibals, you know. Now they're dining on...alas, our pollinators--the honey bees, sunflower bees, sweat bees, bumble bees and butterflies. (We'd prefer it if they changed their menu to pests instead of pollinators.)
The ever-so-patient mantids lie in wait and snag their prey with their spiked forelegs.
Yes, we know they're out there. This one (below) was hidden in the lavender patch.
(Editor's Note: Like Bug Squad on Facebook)