The predator and the prey...
Or the predator-to-bee.
Currently, honey bees are foraging on our tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. It's a veritable tower of bees.
They're side-stepping a little brown, carefully wrapped package: a praying mantis egg case, the ootheca. But sometimes they're stepping on it.
The "baby" mantids have not emerged yet, but soon they will. The siblings will eat one another before they turn to other prey.
The growing mantids will move from flower to flower and add the honey bee to their menu. Native bees, honey bees, butterflies...and it all begins right here--right here with the ootheca.
Everybody eats in the garden. Everybody.
The ootheca is a marvelous creation. Wikipedia tells us that ootheca is a Latinized combination of oo-, meaning "egg," from the Greek word ōon (cf. Latin ovum), and theca, meaning a "cover" or "container," from the Greek theke. Ootheke is Greek for ovary.
"Oothecae are made up of structural proteins and tanning agents that cause the protein to harden around the eggs, providing protection and stability," says Wikipedia. "The production of ootheca convergently evolved across numerous insect species due to a selection for protection from parasites and other forms of predation, as the complex structure of the shell casing provides an evolutionary reproductive advantage (although the fitness and lifespan also depend on other factors such as the temperature of the incubating ootheca)."
"The ootheca protects the eggs from microorganisms, parasitoids, predators, and weather; the ootheca maintains a stable water balance through variation in its surface, as it is porous in dry climates to protect against desiccation, and smooth in wet climates to protect against oversaturation. Its composition and appearance vary depending on species and environment."
The ootheca also protects against tiptoeing bees. They are totally unaware of what's in this little brown, carefully wrapped package. Its presence is not a present.
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.
The praying mantis glared at me.
It was not afraid of me, my camera, or my jockeying around to get a better position.
When I captured the image (below) last fall in a neighbor's garden, I decided that in 2009, I would get my very own praying mantis.
Or maybe dozens of them.
Praying mantises, you see, help control aphids, thrips, flies, whiteflies, mosquitoes, and grubs. They also make great portraits.
So, how do you get your very own praying mantis? You can order egg cases online (just Google "praying mantis egg cases") or buy them at a local nursery. Also, you can usually find them in the gardening section of your favorite hardware store.
You'll get a finely meshed net bag. You hang it in a tree or bush by threading a small branch through the mesh or by nailing the bag to the branch. The eggs will hatch three weeks after temperatures reach 70 degrees. The tiny mantises will exit through the holes and scatter into the nearby foliage.
We purchased our bag (well, two bags) today in the gardening section of Home Depot. The egg cases are refrigerated to avoid unwanted hatching in the store. Each bag contains one egg case, and each egg case will yield about 200 mantises, the instruction indicate. The insects will mature in 4 to 6 months. The female will deposit from one to 5 egg cases before winter. With the first freeze, the adults die. The egg cases hatch in the spring.
Then the cycle begins again.
Now, we wait. Soon, with any luck, we'll have scores of praying mantises.
Life is good!