Henrietta, our Stagmomantis limbata praying mantis, perches on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
She is as patient as she is persistent.
The drone fly, aka syrphid and also known as a hover fly or flower fly, makes the fatal mistake of touching down on the same blossom.
Henrietta eyes it hungrily. Faster than a blink of the eye, she snares it, clutching it between her spiked forelegs.
"Well, of course, I like drone flies," she appears to be saying, between mouthfuls. "Thank you for asking."
Praying mantids are not known for their table manners. It's grab, hold and eat.
The cycle of life in the garden.
Talk about the unexpected.
“Look!” says Jim.
He pauses by the kitchen counter.
"Over there!” he says, pointing. I don't see anything except the half-filled coffee pot.
Then I see it. "There," as in “over there,” is a praying mantis clinging to the wall and staring at us. It is like finding a grizzly bear in Kenya. (Yes, there is a grizzly bear in Kenya, on a private reserve, the Ol Jogi wildlife conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya)
Praying mantis expert Lohit Garikipati, entomology student at the University of California, Davis and an associate at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, identified our kitchen guest as a Stagmomantis limbata, a bordered mantis native to North America. “Looks like she wanted to come in for some free food!” Lohit quipped.
That's how we acquired Henrietta (which means home ruler) . Apparently she hitched a ride on the back of Jim's jacket as he was removing a patch of Mexican sunflowers. She opted to depart her "ride" in our kitchen.
By the half-filled coffee pot. Praying mantids don't do coffee.
We placed Henrietta in an aquarium, screened at the top, and kept her for a week, feeding her drone flies and crickets. We provided her with an upright stick just in case she wanted to deposit an egg case, an ootheca.
Several days later an ootheca, about an inch long, appeared in the aquarium. Not on the stick—she chose to deposit it on the floor.
What does an ootheca look like under a powerful microscope? Amazing. Lynn Epstein, UC Davis emeritus professor of plant pathology, photographed it with a Leica DVM6 microscope owned by the Department of Pathology and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (see below).
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