Holy Goat—That’s a Big Praying Mantis!

Uzzi and I were eating supper last evening when Uzzi yelled, "What's that!?" When I looked up, he was staring at a wooden fence post. I ambled over to take a look and perched on the post was the biggest bug I've ever seen!

by Martok
Chinese praying mantises are the biggest insect in the U.S. and can grow to 12 inches long! Photo by Sue Weaver (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo by Sue Weaver

Uzzi and I were eating supper last evening when Uzzi yelled, “What’s that!?” When I looked up, he was staring at a wooden fence post. I ambled over to take a look and perched on the post was the biggest bug I’ve ever seen!

As soon as the lights went out in the house, Uzzi and I crept into the house and booted up the computer. We did a search on Arkansas insects and this is what we learned.

The big green and brown bug was a Chinese praying mantis. There are about 2,000 kinds of mantises worldwide and 20 or so in the United States. Chinese praying mantises were introduced to North America in 1896 to help control harmful bugs. A Chinese mantis can be up to 6 inches long, and females are bigger than males. Our mantis must be a girl because it’s huge! According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, praying mantises eat all kind of insects, spiders and even other mantises—but get this: Female Chinese mantises also eat small reptiles, amphibians and even hummingbirds!

Praying mantises have super perception, with five eyes and a head that can swivel 180 degrees. Photo by Sue Weaver (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo by Sue Weaver

All praying mantises are lie-in-wait predators, meaning they find a spot and stay there, perfectly still, until a tasty tidbit happens by. Then, like a flash, their strong, serrated-edged forelegs shoot out and the mantis captures its lunch. It clutches its prey between its forelegs and eats it alive, head first, so lunch doesn’t struggle very long.

Praying mantises have six legs and two antennae. They have cool-looking, triangular-shaped heads that can swivel 180 degrees; that way they can see all around without moving their bodies. They have five eyes: two huge compound eyes with multiple lenses and three simple eyes, so they can see really well up to 40 feet away. Worldwide, adult mantises range in size from 2/5 inch to 12 inches long; Chinese praying mantises are the biggest insects in the U.S. Most praying mantises are brown, green or pink and nicely camouflaged to blend with the type of greenery they live in.

Praying mantises are territorial, so you’ll see only one mantis on a single plant, and the mantis will stay there as long as food keeps happening by.

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Praying mantises live for less than one year, hatching in springtime and dying when winter weather sets in. Their life cycle is a type called incomplete metamorphosis, meaning that newly hatched baby mantises look like adults except they don’t have wings. As they grow, they molt their exoskeletons up to 10 times and soon tiny wings appear. With each molt their wings get bigger and bigger. Adult mantises can fly really well.

Mantises have a weird autumn mating ritual. While they’re mating, the female tries to bite off the male’s head. If she’s successful, he can keep on mating even though his head is missing. Then she eats him when they’re finished. I’m glad I’m a studly boy goat instead of a male praying mantis!

After mating, the female lays between 12 to 400 eggs and deposits them in a frothy mass produced by glands in her abdomen. This hardens into a tough, brown egg case called an ootheca, which protects the eggs over winter well into the following spring. When baby mantises hatch, they’re famished and fill up by eating as many of their brothers and sisters as they can. I’m glad my sisters didn’t do that!

Praying mantises are beneficial to the garden because they eat so many pests. If you want to populate your garden with praying mantises (don’t worry—they don’t bite humans or livestock), collect egg cases whenever you find them and place them in a safe place to hatch. Or buy egg cases from gardening catalogs; those work, too.

Best of all, they’re fun to look at. Uzzi and I agree: We hope our praying mantis comes back!

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