Fall is one of the best times of the year to go out looking for insects.
Many of the larger, more spectacular insects become adults in autumn, and possibly one of the most interesting of all is the Mantids, also called the Praying Mantis.
Mantids belong to the Class Insecta, Order Mantodea, and are medium to large (to very large) insects. Mantids are very closely related to cockroaches and termites. In fact to an Entomologist, Mantids are just carnivorous cockroaches (and termites are just social cockroaches). Some scientist put the three of them into a superorder called Dictyoptera (which means net winged, based on their wing venation).
Mantids are diurnal (meaning active during the day) and have large multifaceted eyes. It is believed they can see objects up to 20 meters away, and up close have excellent stereoscopic vision, making them excellent hunters. They catch their prey with two spiked forelegs, called raptorial legs, striking swiftly, and not allowing their targets a chance to get away. They are able to rotate their heads 180 degrees, so they are able to see all around themselves, looking for prey and creatures hunting them. Amongst their prey are mainly other insects and spiders, but also small mammals, frogs and even birds.
Here is a picture of Gabby, a female mantis I cam across in The Parklands:
You can see that, in addition to her awesome arsenal of weapons, she is also camouflaged. They are camoed for protection and because Mantids are ambush predators- lying in wait for their prey to walk in front of them, and then snapping them up with their muscular raptorial legs. After capturing prey they will eat them, usually head first.
You can tell that Gabby is female because her abdomen is swollen, probably because she is pregnant and ready to lay her eggs. Male Mantids have slimmer abdomens, and are able to fly fairly well. Gabby was able to fly from my arm to the ground and not get hurt, but that is about the extent of her flying ability at this stage.
There are two stories about Mantids that most everyone hears.
The first is that it is illegal to kill a Mantis. In actuality, it is not illegal to kill, collect or keep one for a pet. Because they easily become acclimated to being handled they make excellent insect pets, although you have to ensure they have water, crickets and other insects for food, and sticks and vegetation to climb on and hide in.
The other story is that female Mantids kill and eat the male Mantids after mating. This is also not exactly true. You see, they begin feeding on the male before, after, and during mating, starting with the head. Mantids will eat just about any insect it can grab a hold of and overpower, even it’s own kind. There is some speculation that in the case of a mating female, this keeps the male Mantids from flying away before his job is done. It is also probable that this is a side effect of living in captivity, and that in the wild this rarely happens (perhaps because the male can escape easier, using his surperior flight skills). Still the female Mantid is much bigger than the male, and she is very well armed, so maybe the male Mantids needs to do whatever he can to keep her from getting angry.
Photos and story by Russ McIntyre, Parklands Intern/Volunteer.