It’s the time of year that you may encounter a wonderfully weird, insect-hunting machine in your garden – a praying mantis. Named for the way they hold up the forepart of their body with its enormous front legs – like they’re praying.
Ranging in size from two to four inches long, they’re masters of camouflage. Adult mantids (the terms mantid and mantis are used interchangeably), tend to be yellowish, green, or brown, allowing them to blend in with the twigs and stems where they sit waiting to snare their victims. Their triangular-shaped head has a large compound eye on each side and three other simple eyes between them – they can detect the slightest movement up to 60 feet away. They’re the only known insect that can turn its head and look over its shoulder, with a “neck” that allows the head to rotate 180 degrees.
Praying mantids are meat eaters with enormous appetites and will eat almost anything they can overcome. When young, they feed on aphids, leafhoppers, mosquitoes, caterpillars, and other soft-bodied insects, while the adults feast on beetles, butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, and other insects – both pests and beneficials. They’re ambush predators; when prey is close enough, they snap it up with a lightning movement of their strong forelegs – a strike that takes only 50 to 70 milliseconds, one of the fastest muscle movements of any animal.
You’re likely to see them in the early morning or late afternoon, basking in the sunshine. During hotter periods of the day, they seek cover in shrubs, bushes, and clumps of flowers where there is plenty of food and protection from predators.
Praying mantids are territorial, although the size of the territory depends on the availability of food. They tend to stick around on one or two bushes throughout the season. A twenty by forty- foot garden would support two or three adults at most. For the area they inhabit, they are likely to keep the local insect population down (both pests and beneficials), but since they don’t move around too much, their general benefit to the garden may be limited. Learn more about these amazing insects.