The year 2020 felt like a close encounter of the worst kind.
The raging COVID-19 pandemic, the California wildfires, the political scene, the poverty, the racial uprisings, the stay-at-home mandates, the strife...
When the Washington Post recently asked its readers to describe 2020 in one word, more than 2000 responded. These three words tumbled out the most: "exhausting," "lost" and "chaotic." Readers also defined 2020 as "surreal," "relentless," "fallow," "limbo," "heartbreaking," "nightmare," "broken dreams," "stifling," "dumpster fire," and simply "ugh!"
"Ugh?" That's right. We never knew what was coming at us next.
At times it seemed as if we were the prey, trying to escape hundreds of hungry, circling predators.
We remember this encounter last summer between a praying mantis, a female Mantis religiosa, and a Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae, on a fenceline bordering our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Here's the mantis, lying in wait by the passionflower vine, ready to ambush any "suitable prey" that comes within her reach. Along comes a Gulf Fritillary, which the mantis defined as "quite suitable."
The mantis pounced, but couldn't wrap its spiked forelegs around the butterfly. The mantis finally settled for a caterpillar.
So, as we end the year 2020, the key word should be "escape." Like the butterfly, we need to be find our way out of the clutches of a cunning predator, one cunning predator at a time.
Here's hoping for a Happy New Year!
In the year 2020, COVID chased us out of our work places and out of our fun places.
So we dutifully covered our faces to cover all the bases, washed our hands to meet all the demands, and kept our distance to continue our existence.
But wait...we did NOT socially distance from the insects.
The bees buzzed, the butterflies fluttered, and the praying mantids did what they do best--ambush their prey (much to some folks' dismay).
But let us not stray....
They say that Santa Claus this year looks like...um...The Grinch.
Does Santa look like The Grinch? Maybe, in a pinch. But on Christmas Eve we always scan the horizon for that familiar sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer--and led by No. 9, a beaming reindeer with a red nose. (But they've never been willing to pose.)
COVID may have chased us out of our work places and out of our fun places, but don't let The Grinch steal Christmas. It's not his to steal. Let us heal.
Merry Christmas! And stay safe!
He's a mantis. A masked mantis.
And Santa Claus does not DRIVE a sleigh.
The jolly ol' gent RIDES a mantis. A masked mantis.
Take it from UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty members Robert and Lynn Kimsey.
A masked mantis with Santa astride graces their front yard in Davis. The mantis? It's probably a Stagmomantis californica, native to the Western United States—and the Kimsey domicile.
Unfounded (and unfunded) scientific research indicates that passersby have laughed at the mantis, but it is not known whether anyone has ever called him names or banned him from playing reindeer games. A National Institutes of Health grant may determine that.
Rumor has it, though, that S. Claus--aka Kris Kringle or that Pudgy-North-Pole-Resident-Who-Never-Met-a-Cookie-He-Didn't-Like--did approach the red-nosed mantis and mumble something like “with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?” Or maybe it was “Hey, buddy, can I hitch a ride?”
Anyway, the red-nosed mantis, not known for keen auditory perceptions, consented.
Of course, all the reindeer loved him and shouted out with glee that he would "go down in his-tor-ee." That's because Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen and Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen wanted to get out of work. Who wants to pull a sleigh that defies the maximum federal gross vehicle weight of 80,000 pounds?
But what, pray tell, will happen if the preying mantis gets...umm...hungry along the way?
Professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and an authority on insects, and Robert Kimsey, who specializes in forensic entomology, caution that children should NOT leave milk and cookies (not even luscious chocolate chirp cookies made with crunchy crickets) on Christmas Eve as the red-nose mantis prefers live crickets, mealworms, bees, beetles, syrphid flies, grasshoppers, butterflies and caterpillars, thank you.
Those passion flowers (Passiflora) are insect magnets.
One minute you'll see a praying mantis on a blossom. The next minute, a Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae. And the next morning, the blossom is an arthropod magnet--the beginnings of a spider web.
Passiflora is the host plant of the Gulf Fritillary, a spectacular orange butterfly with silver-spangled underwings. The Gulf Frit lays its eggs only on Passiflora.
The Gulf Frits know where the Passiflora is. Their predators know where the butterflies are.
The female mantis, Mantis religiosa (below), didn't snag the butterfly. But it did grab and munch on a few Gulf Frit caterpillars.
Ever critter eats in the garden.
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.