She hides 'em and we seek 'em.
We've spotted as many as seven adult praying mantids at a time in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., but never once have we seen any of them laying eggs.
The praying mantis lays an egg mass known as an ootheca or a protective egg sac. But always when you're nowhere around!
Not so this time.
Late Sunday afternoon, Sept. 23, Ms. Mantis (a Stagmomantis limbata, as identified by UC Davis student Lohit Garikipati, a Bohart Museum of Entomology associate who rears mantids) decided to grace our milkweed planter with a little present.
She climbed a redwood stake, looked around, saw me (oh, no problem, you're not a predator!), and crawled over to the other side. She positioned herself upside down, bulging abdomen intact, and proceeded to do her business. A frothy cream-colored substance began to emerge. (See my short YouTube video.) When darkness fell, she was still there.
When Monday dawned, she was still there, her ootheca finished and hardening. It probably contains several hundred eggs, but who's counting? However, scientists estimate that only one fifth will survive to adulthood. Many of the nymphs will be eaten by their hungry brothers and sisters. Bon appétit?
"Now that she's deposited the ootheca, will she expire soon?" we asked Garikipati.
"It's still early on in the season, so she may lay another two or three," he said.
She may indeed. Mama Mantis continues to hang out in the milkweed, while her ootheca, like a flag on a flag pole, "commemorates" the spot.
It should be a warning sign to incoming monarchs.
The next day, we found the clipped wing of a male monarch.
Hopefully, the male didn't lose his head.
Which begs a question asked by a reader: How long after mating does the female lay or produce her egg case (ootheca)?
"Usually it takes a week or two for temperate species, but tropical species can take much longer," says mantis expert Andrew Pfeifer of Monroe County, N.C., administrator for the public Facebook page, Mantis Keepers. "My Plistospilota guineensis took almost a month to lay hers. Mantis mating is a relatively straightforward process. A mature female will release pheromones to attract a male from a distance, hence why his antennae are longer and thicker. Upon getting close, he uses sight to find her. The male will slowly approach from behind, leaping on her back and using his antennae to calm her down by tapping her pronotum. Usually he will immediately curl his abdomen under her body until he meets her ovipositor, where he inserts his claspers. They will copulate for hours, with my longest pairing lasting two days. Eventually he will jump away, usually flying off to a safe distance from the female."
"The laying process itself can take anywhere from an hour to almost five depending on the size of the ooth," Pfeifer says. The Plistospilota guineensis ootheca is about as large as they can be, roughly equal to a large chicken egg."
Pfeifer, recently featured on Bug Squad, kindly shared his images of the adult mega mantids and a ootheca (see below) which is indeed enormous.
And how many mantids does he think might emerge from this mega mantis? "This one can contain upwards of 400," he says.
And THAT is a lot of mantids.
(Editor's Note: Praying mantids are among the insects featured in the live "petting zoo" at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building, University of California, Davis, campus. The Bohart, part of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, will host an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18. The theme is "Parasitoid Palooza" (featuring jewel wasps, nematodes and flies) but mantids can also be seen and photographed in the petting zoo. The event is free and open to the public and family friendly. Bohart Museum associate and UC Davis student Lohitashwa "Lohit" Garikipati breeds mantids and donated part of his collection, including an orchid mantis, to the Bohart. He is secretary of the UC Davis Entomology Club, advised by forensic entomologist Robert Kimsey, and is a member of the Facebook page, Mantis Keepers).
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
A European praying mantis, Mantis religiosa, hangs out in our passionflower vine, Passiflora, the host plant of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly.
Mantis religiosa is an introduced species, that is, non-native.
We introduce ourselves. She stares at the photographer, and the photographer stares back. There's an old saying "Take a picture; it'll last longer" and I do.
She appears ready for her portrait. She's already eaten her fill of butterflies and the sun is setting. The day is almost done.
We could say she's a lean, green, eating machine, but she's neither lean nor green but she is an eating machine.
Praying mantis expert Andrew Pfeiffer of Monroe County, North Carolina, administrator of the Facebook page, Mantis Keepers, says she probably eats caterpillars as well as the adult butterflies. (And just about anything else she can catch. That's what mantids do.)
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 told us (See feature on Bug Squad blog). “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.”
Fact is, praying mantids fascinate us, and not just when they're "praying," "preying" or eating.
This mantis, nicknamed "My Buddy," is not alone. Two other praying mantids, known as "My Other Buddies," live in our family's pollinator garden and both are the native Stagmomantis limbata, as identified by Pfeiffer. 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.
"My Other Buddies" are both gravid females, as well. One is green and hangs upside down on the milkweed, blending in with the greenery while it ambushes assorted bees. The other, also green, prefers to perch in a patch of red/yellow lantana, camouflaged amid the green leaves and stems. There it snags assorted Lepidoptera--skipper butterflies, cabbage white butterflies and moths.
The three have never met.
Let's hope they don't.
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.