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.
Yes, I'm hungry.
A female praying mantis is perched upside down in our pollinator garden. She has maintained this position in the verbena over a four-day period, enduring temperatures that soar to 105 degrees.
The mantis, a Stagmomantis limbata (as identified by praying mantis expert Lohit Garikipati of UC Davis) remains persistent, even as the temperature gauge spikes and the insects vanish.
Then on Saturday afternoon, we notice a few honey bees and Valley carpenter bees buzzing around her, and Gulf Fritillary butterflies and skipper butterflies fluttering next to her.
The predator and the prey. The hunter and the hunted. Will she be a successful hunter today? No, not today. Maybe tomorrow.
On Sunday morning, with the temperature hovering at 80 degrees, it happens. A sluggish honey bee makes the fatal mistake of nectaring on a blossom next to her.
Bad day for the honey bee; good day for the mantis. The mantis grabs the bee with her spiked forelegs, clutching it firmly, and begins to eat.
Freeloader flies, Milichiidae (probably genus Desmometopa), arrive too late to partake in the meal.
Ms. Mantis, now nourished, scales a verbena stem.
Am I hungry? Well, I can still eat a bite.
We rarely see an adult praying mantis until late summer or fall.
Their offspring are out there, though.
And sometimes we see life go full circle.
On Sept. 23, 2018, we watched a Mama Stagmomantis limbata, as identified by UC Davis entomology student and mantis expert Lohit Garikipati, a Bohart Museum of Entomology associate who rears mantids) grace our planter with an ootheca in Vacaville, Calif.
As we mentioned in a previous Bug Squad blog:
"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!"
Fast forward to May 13, 2019. We spotted an offspring cradled in a leaf a few inches from the ootheca. "First-instar, Stagmomantis limbata," Garikipati said. "Must be an ooth nearby."
And then on May 19 our "star"--or maybe one of its siblings--came up missing a chunk of its abdomen. Sibling cannibalism?
No "sisterly or brotherly love," to be sure.
And this one, too.
And that one over there!
When UC Davis employees and their offspring visited the Bohart Museum of Entomology during the recent "Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work" Day, reactions ranged from awe to "wow!"
They held walking sticks (stick insects), Madagascar hissing cockroaches and tomato hornworms. Two youngsters held tarantulas. And all checked out the butterfly and beetle specimens.
One little girl, Olivia Bingen, 4, who was there with her father, Steve Bingen of the UC Davis Department of Music, was dressed in pink and asked the Bohart scientists if they had any pink butterflies.
"She likes pink," her father said. She also likes to play the violin.
The museum, founded in 1946 by the late Richard M. Bohart and now directed by Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology, is open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, except on holidays. Admission is free.
Special weekend events, free and family friendly, are held throughout the year. The next weekend event is Moth Night from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3. Blacklighting will take place just outside the museum. Inside, the attendees will visit the museum's displays and, outside, they will see what insects are attracted to the black-lighted white sheets.
Among those scheduled to host Moth Night are John "Moth Man" DeBenedictis; senior museum scientist Steve Heydon; entomologist Jeff Smith, who curates the Lepitopdera (butterflies and moths) section of the Bohart; and Greg Kareofelas, Bohart associate and naturalist.