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.
You never know what you'll see when you're strolling through the 100-acre UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, a treasure to students, faculty, staff and visitors.
Case in point: For the last several months, we've been admiring a Mexican grass tree, Dasylirion longissimum, a 10-foot tall drought-tolerant plant with long, needle-like leaves radiating from its trunk. So perfect. So exquisite. Kinetic art at its finest. Indeed, it's often described as an "architectural wonder" in the plant world. Scores of horticulturists in California and the southwest United States favor it as their focal point for their xeriscape landscape projects.
The plant is native to the Chihuahuan Desert, which extends from West Texas, through parts of New Mexico and Arizona, and into much of the central and northern portions of the Mexican Plateau. It can tower 15 feet in height.
Last week we noticed something different about its presence in the UC Davis Arboretum: a brown clump clinging to the faded green wiry spikes.
Could it be? It was. A praying mantis egg case or ootheca.
To protect it from "egg gatherers," we won't indicate the exact location. But it is clear evidence that a female praying mantis was there and she, no doubt, ambushed and devoured honey bees, syrphid flies and butterflies before mating and producing the egg case.
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. “Typically you have pockets for native species where you see only one,” he says.
We usually begin seeing sizable mantids around July and continuing through October. We photographed this one, a Stagmomantis limbata, perched on showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) on Oct. 3, 2017 in Vacaville, Calif., as she nailed unsuspecting prey. In this case, a honey bee.
Her egg case is probably around somewhere....but she didn't lay it on our milkweed....or our Mexican grass tree....
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.
Nobody lost their head today.
Oh, in the people world, all across our nation's workplaces, they did. Eyes rolled, tempers flared, outbursts erupted and some angry assailants went into what my ol' journalism professor aptly described as "a blithering rage." Now, there are rages and then there are rages. But there is only one "blithering rage."
But in the insect world, nobody lost their head, at least not in our bee garden.
A gravid praying mantis nestled in the lavender patch suddenly found herself with company. The camouflaged mama-to-be proved difficult to see: she looked like a cross between a thick brown twig and a dried-up blossom. Her companion, a lean green machine bent on spreading some DNA, approached her. He resembled a thin blade of green grass. Now you see him, now you don't. Where'd he go? Oh, there he is.
The two made quite a couple. A bloated Lady of the Lavender and a young agile Mr. Mantis who could have easily graced the cover of the Gentlemen's Quarterly.
We watched them for several hours as they moved from the lavender patch to the sedum. Butterflies fluttered overhead, and honey bees nectared from flowers just inches away. The couple ignored them.
We were positive that someone was going to lose his head. A "gotcha" moment. A little extra protein. A healthy ootheca that would not be denied.
It never happened.
The last time we saw Mr Mantis, his head was firmly attached to his body, thank you.