Have you ever seen a green-legged praying mantis on a green leaf?
Praying mantis expert Lohitashwa "Lohit" Garikipati, identified this species as a subadult male, Stagmomantis limbata, perched in a patch of African blue basil in our family's pollinator garden. When the temperature soared to 105 degrees, Mr. Mantis escaped the heat by slipping beneath the leaf. Mantids are not only great ambush predators but they know how to keep cool!
But the green legs?
We asked Garikipati, a UC Davis entomology graduate now studying for his master's degree with biologist Christopher Oufiero, an associate professor at Towson University, Towson, MD. While a UC Davis student, he showed mantids at the Bohart Museum of Entomology open houses.
"Your observation is interesting and it's a rather interesting phenomenon tha'ts often noticed by mantis researchers observing wild specimens," Garikipati said. "I've found numerous individuals on foliage that is more or less the same color as they are--they could easily choose to sit somewhere else, yet they choose to sit on that particular color of foliage. How much of this is color matching is hard to say--some species can alter their coloration within an instar, others take multiple molts to do so."
Through his personal observations in rearing S. limbata, Garikipati said "they only seem to be able to drastically change over multiple instars. It's possible that this individual has lived on that plant for a period of time. Even if that is the case, its absolutely incredible that they are able to color match to their surroundings--how the mechanism works I have no idea. Probably unsurprisingly, they are much more complex than we ever give them credit for."
Epilogue: As bees buzzed over and around his head, Mr. Mantis never resorted to "Green Legs and Bam!" (See YouTube video and hear the bees buzzing)
Me thinks Mr. Mantis wasn't all that hungry or maybe he was just too heat-tired to reach out and nab a bee with his spiked forelegs.
Honey bees absolutely love African blue basil. If there ever were a "bee magnet," this plant is it.
We first learned of African blue basil, (Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum 'Dark Opal'), through Gordon Frankie, UC Berkeley professor and the late Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis. They co-authored the book, California Bees and Blooms: a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists with Rollin Coville and Barbara Ertter, also affiliated with UC Berkeley.
We plant it every year in our pollinator garden. Wikipedia calls African blue basil "a cross between camphor basil and dark opal basil. "African blue basil plants are sterile, unable to produce seeds of their own, and can only be propagated by cuttings.
"All parts of the flower, leaves and stems are edible; although some might find the camphor scent too strong for use in the kitchen, the herb reportedly yields a tasty pesto with a 'rich, mellow flavor' and can be used as a seasoning in soups and salads, particularly those featuring tomato, green beans, chicken, etc.," Wikipedia tells us. "The leaves of African blue basil start out purple when young, only growing green as the given leaf grows to its full size, and even then retaining purple veins. Based on other purple basils, the color is from anthocyanins, especially cyanidin-3-(di-p-coumarylglucoside)-5-glucoside, but also other cyanidin-based and peonidin-based compounds."
A final note that Wikipedia relates: It "blooms profusely like an annual, but being sterile can never go to seed. It is also taller than many basil cultivars. These blooms are very good at attracting bees and other pollinators."
Right. "These blooms are very good at attracting bees and other pollinators."
Wikipedia forgot to mention that blooms are "very good at attracting predators," like praying mantids. They go where the bees are, and the bees are in the African blue basil.
Can you find the mantis in the image below?
Our showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) is putting on a show.
The towering plant--a good eight feet--anchors the garden as we patiently wait for monarch butterflies to arrive and lay their eggs.
It's mid-August and it appears the monarchs are not coming here to our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Maybe we'll see some during their late summer or early fall migration--on their way to their overwintering sites along coastal California.
Meanwhile, the speciosa has more than its share of lady beetles (aka ladybugs) and aphids.
But now we have a new visitor, well, maybe a permanent resident.
A praying mantis, Stagmomantis limbata (as confirmed by mantis expert Lohit Garikipati, a UC Davis graduate and Bohart Museum of Entomology associate now attending graduate school in Towson University, Maryland) has arrived.
For the first several days, Ms. Mantis hung upside down and did not eat (at least in our presence). She watched the bees buzzing around but made no effort to snag one. We think she was yawning. "Okay, I know you're there. I don't care and I'm not hungry."
Then we found her exoskeleton on one of the speciosa leaves.
A mantid's "skeleton," you know, is outside its body and it's known as an "exoskeleton." It reminds us of a suit of armor, for protection, support and form (is it a "suite of amour" when love abounds?).
A young mantis eats and outgrows its exoskeleton and then it molts (sheds it). Scientists say some species of growing mantids may lose their exoskeletons as many as 10 times.
And, according to Garikipati, a mantis that has just molted may not eat for two or three days.
Did you hear that, bees?
So, bottom line, no monarchs on the milkweed.
But we do have assorted lady beetles, aphids, and one praying mantis and her exoskeleton.
Wait, correct that. Just one mantis. A breeze just swept away the exoskeleton.
Will a praying mantis eat a caterpillar?
Short answer: Yes.
For several days, we've been watching a resident praying mantis, a female Mantis religiosa, hanging out in our patch of Passiflora (passionflower), the host plant of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae.
We grow Passiflora to attract these spectacular orange butterflies with the silver-spangled underwings. They sip nectar, court, mate and lay their eggs. The eggs hatch into hungry caterpillars and skeletonize our plants, which make us look like "bad gardeners" but the scenario makes for a "great butterfly habitat."
This year there's no "bad-gardener" look.
The caterpillars haven't skeletonized our plants.
Then we see Mrs. Religiosa. She does not look gravid, unlike the other mantids in our garden. She is string-bean thin. Praying mantis expert and UC Davis alumnus Lohit Garikipati figures she has already deposited her egg case, or ootheca, and she'll live another month or two.
Last year the Gulf Frits graced us with so many caterpillars that they were the zucchinis of the garden. Too many, too soon. We donated dozens of the 'cats to the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, for its open house, and to youngsters engaged in science projects.
But this year, where are all the caterpillars?
In any pollinator garden, you must expect the pollinators, predators and the prey. Lady beetles and soldier beetles gobble up the butterfly eggs, while birds, spiders and wasps prey on the caterpillars.
We've never seen a praying mantis grab a caterpillar, though. Until now.
Oh, look! A butterfly ballet ever so graceful over the head of string-bean thin Mrs. Religiosa.
She ignores them. Then she spots a caterpillar. Easy catch, right?
Yes, a praying mantis will eat a caterpillar.
When we last left Ms. Mantis, a female Stagmomantis limbata residing in our verbena patch, she was munching on a honey bee.
A successful ambush stalker, she was.
But not always.
Her plan to take down a duskywing butterfly, genus Erynnis, didn't go so well.
The butterfly, foraging on the blossoms, touches down near the predator, unaware of the trouble that could lie ahead.
The predator and the prey. The skillful hunter and the unsuspecting prey. Ms. Mantis is poised, ready to strike. The butterfly flutters away in the nick of time.
It will live to forage another day.
The mantis? It will live to hunt another day.