Note: all images here were taken by me over the past several decades.
Fall is one of my favorite times of year, and not only because of the glorious foliage, nor the crisp, cool weather. Since I’ve been a child I have been fascinated by one insect above all; the amazing and complicated Praying Mantis. And every fall they put on a display that can only be described as awesome. The only problem is it involves love, deceit and cruelty. Reality show, anyone?
In the way of background, the Praying Mantis that we all know is one of those mythologized creatures from childhood. While it is true that they are the gardener’s friend (they have voracious appetites for insect pests), they are not protected by any laws. In fact, lots of kids, and even adults, raise them as pets.
The praying mantis we know (there are more than 2200 species of mantids worldwide) live anywhere from 3-6 months, from spring to fall. After they emerge from their egg case, they grow quickly and by fall they will be from 4-6 inches in length.
And, yes, they are capable of biting, but the chance of that happening is slim. I have been handling them for decades and I’ve only been nipped once. They are not venomous and their bite is hardly painful. In most cases, their jaws are too small to even close on a fingertip. In the case of the one time I was “bitten”, I wasn’t aware of it until I realized that the poor thing was hanging from my fingertip by its jaws.
Linus and the Football
Just like Linus and Lucy, every fall is witness to the Praying Mantis equivalent of the snatched-away football. As the weather turns slightly cold, females release a hormone that is irresistible to males. With love beckoning, the male mounts the female and deposits a sperm packet into her.
The female will then turn around and try to bite off the head of the male. In about 25% of cases in our local mantis species she succeeds. I won’t go into the intricacies of this act, but you can judge for yourself from this image, taken about 35 years ago when I photographed the life cycle of the mantis for a magazine.
With copulation over, the female will then secrete a sticky egg mass that will cling to just about any surface. Inside this mass will be anywhere from 75-200 eggs. The mass hardens into the characteristic shape we see here.
That mass (known as the ootheca) will overwinter and in spring, after a sustained warm spell, out will come the little mantises.
So, with all this as background, here’s an amusing incident that happened when I was shooting the life cycle magazine story. I had paid some kids to gather up a few egg cases for me, paying them 50 cents apiece and thinking that if they gathered a half dozen I’d be happy. Instead, the motley group showed up at my door one morning with a shopping bag half full of egg cases!
I set up an aquarium and took a couple of egg cases out of the refrigerator at a time to photograph the little mantises emerging. As it happens, they emerge mostly at night, so I had to put in some all-nighters to get the images I wanted. Well, one night I was so tired, I forgot to put the mesh top on the aquarium before I hit the sack for a few hours. Next day about 300-400 praying mantis babes were all over my bachelor pad.
I didn’t see this as a huge problem. The fact is that mantises will eat just about anything that moves, even their egg case mates. Yeah, I know, but that’s nature, or at least a microcosm of it in an apartment.
Within a couple of months, I would only see a couple each day walking on my curtains or on my bookshelves and I’d smile and put them outside to do their thing. That worked well until one night my girlfriend bolted out of bed, screaming, with a startled mantis still clinging to her hair. Okay, at that point this became a problem. Mantises, I determined, were not conducive to romance.
Anyway, to complete my mantis story, I had to get a shot of mantises mating, so the following year I gathered a bunch of adults and, once again, back to the aquarium. I did capture them mating and - yucch! - the biting off of the male’s head, which my girlfriend at the time lovingly told me she would have happily done to me when that mantis was crawling on her.
So, have fun photographing mantises, but do so at your peril… and definitely avoid doing this if you are single and dating.