According to the biblical legend three Kings called the Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to celebrate the birth of Christ more than two millennia ago in the town of Bethlehem. Although this story originated long ago, our bug story began last spring in the wilds of South Attleboro, Massachusetts. An intrepid band of bug collectors discovered several beautiful, tiny mantids catching leafhoppers and small crickets in a meadow. Like travelers of old, these mantids came from afar having been introduced to the United States from Europe in the 1890’s near Rochester, New York.
Mantis religiosa is a native to Europe where the name praying mantis is used for this species. The name Mantis comes from the ancient Greeks who used mantis to describe a soothsayer or one that could see into the future. Since its introduction to North America this magnificent creature has spread throughout much of the United States and it is now widespread east of the Mississippi and northward into Canada.
In captivity our young mantids spent time cavorting in a terrarium and practicing their hunting skills on fruit flies that were the mainstay of their diet. With age these predators progressed to larger prey such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, and crickets. As we learned in a previous episode of Bug of the Week, mantids have a disconcerting habit of eating each other. To prevent unfortunate dining experiences, our mantids are raised in isolation. As summer became autumn and autumn turned to winter, our mantids turned their attention toward finding a mate. One particularly lovely femme fatale named Manti enjoyed dinner and a date with a charming, but hapless gentleman named Little Richard. Just in time for the Holiday season Manti presented us with a delightful gift - a spectacular ootheca. The ootheca is a Styrofoam-like structure deposited by the female mantid on a structure such as a branch or trunk of a tree. Within the ootheca may be more than one hundred eggs. While Manti will not survive the winter, her eggs will endure the inimical season and hatch when the warmth of spring and its abundance of tasty prey return. Mantids are not without their own predators. By day, birds hunt these marvelous insects. By night, as mantids fly about seeking food or mates, they are hunted by hungry bats. Bats use ultrasonic signals to detect prey such as moths and mantids in the dark. One might think mantids are helpless in defending themselves from these stealthy nocturnal predators. But mantids have a clever trick up their sleeve or, more correctly stated, ear on their chest. Many species of mantids have evolved an organ to detect sound, an ear so to speak, on the underside of their thorax. Mantids use this ear to detect ultrasonic “chirps” emitted by hunting bats. When the soaring mantid detects the signals of a hungry bat, it evades the bat by quickly diving to the ground.
The ootheca has been placed outside on a tree to chill out for the winter. In spring we will retrieve the ootheca and enjoy the gift of the Manti - a horde of tiny hungry mantids. Bug of Week wishes you a Holiday filled with fun, joy, and cheer.