Praying Mantids

All members of the Mantodea have the characteristic raptorial front legs.

All members of the Mantodea have the characteristic raptorial front legs.

mantid-adult

Mantids are insects with a distinctive appearance.

The praying mantids – mantis really refers only to the genus Mantis, while mantid refers to the entire group – are an order of insects (Mantodea) that appear to be “praying” when their front legs are held at rest. These long, narrow insects have a distinctive appearance with the large, characteristic raptorial (folded back like a pocket knife) front legs modified for grasping prey, with long, sharp spines (that fit into grooves on the opposing parts when not in use) for holding what they catch. They also have an elongated thorax that functions like a neck, enabling the triangular head with its large, compound eyes to swivel almost all the way around. Walking sticks might be confused with mantids, as they, too, are long and thin, but they do not have raptorial front legs.

Female mantids lay eggs in a frothy material that hardens into a styrofoam-like case.

Female mantids lay eggs in a frothy material that hardens into a styrofoam-like case.

A recently hatched mantid.

A recently hatched mantid.

Female mantids generally are larger than the males and have a stouter abdomen. It is commonly believed that the praying mantid female eats the male’s head during the mating process, but this only happens occasionally in the wild unlike in captivity. After mating in the fall, the females lay numerous eggs (dozens to hundreds, depending on the species and conditions) in a frothy secretion attached to a plant stem that hardens into a stryofoam-like egg case (an ootheca). The adults die a few weeks later.

Mantids begin eating whatever they can catch as soon as they hatch; this one is feeding on an aphid.

Mantids begin eating whatever they can catch as soon as they hatch; this one is feeding on an aphid.

The eggs overwinter within the egg case and hatch in the spring into a very small version of the adult. Although they resemble the adult, the nymphs may be a different color or pattern.

A mantid sheds its skin as it grows.

A mantid sheds its skin as it grows.

As they go through incomplete metamorphosis over the course of the growing season they grow in size, eventually developing wings as they reach the adult stage in late summer or fall. They tend to be clumsy fliers, and rarely are seen in flight.

Mantids are ambush predators.

Mantids are ambush predators.

All praying mantids are predaceous, feeding on virtually anything they can catch, such as flies, beetles, crickets, moths, and grasshoppers; larger species of tropical mantids will also eat other animals, such as lizards, frogs, or even hummingbirds.

A mantid poised to capture prey.

A mantid poised to capture prey.

A mantid devours a fly.

A mantid devours a fly.

They are ambush predators, sitting and waiting or very slowly stalking with the front legs raised up, poised to clamp down on whatever insect of the appropriate size moves in front of them – including other mantids. The grasping response of the mantid is incredibly fast so targeted prey rarely escapes. They quickly begin to devour the captured animal with their chewing mouthparts. Mantids in turn are eaten by birds, spiders, bats, or fish (if they fall in the water).
Mantids are frequently cryptically colored to match their normal habitat. This camouflage makes them less likely to be noticed by their prey until it’s too late. Some resemble leaves or other plant parts. Many can change their color somewhat to better match their surroundings. When hunting they sometimes sway back and forth to mimic plants moving in a breeze.

Mantids eating (L-R) a leafhopper, caterpillar, grasshopper and horse fly.

Mantids eating (L-R) a leafhopper, caterpillar, grasshopper and horse fly.

All mantids are predators.

All mantids are predators.

Although they are considered beneficial insects because they eat other insects, they are not particularly useful for biological control because they are indiscriminate feeders and will eat pollinators and other beneficial insects as well as pests, they do not target specific pests, and their cannibalistic nature limits the number of mantids that can exist in an area. But they make great insect ambassadors for introducing children and adult to the world of biology and insects (or just for their entertainment value). Raising mantids in captivity from an egg case is a relatively easy classroom activity, although it probably will not be possible to get the nymphs to mature into adults. Egg cases can be collected in fall (although they blend in very well and are not easy to see) or purchased from a number of suppliers. They can be found in a wide variety of urban, rural, and natural habitats. The insects themselves are generally not easy to spot in the garden either, but sometimes will be found on flowers or attracted to lights at night in late summer. To encourage mantids in the garden, limit pesticide use and provide the dense vegetation they prefer.

This Costa Rican mantid mimics a dead leaf.

This Costa Rican mantid mimics a dead leaf.

Looking like a leaf, the hooded mantid, Choeradodis rhombifolia, is common from Mexico to Peru.

Looking like a leaf, the hooded mantid, Choeradodis rhombifolia, is common from Mexico to Peru.

Of the 1500 species of mantids worldwide most are tropical. Only 20 species occur in the US, and of those only three occur in the upper Midwest. The smallest is the native Carolina mantid, Stagmomantus carolina. It is a mottled, dusty brown color, grows only about 2 inches long, and has long antennae. The other two – European mantid (Mantis religiosa) and Chinese Mantid (Tenodera aridifolia; sometimes incorrectly referred to as T. sinensis) – were introduced to North America from other parts of the world in the late 1800’s either accidentally or as garden predators. The European mantid is pale green and about 3 inches long and. The Chinese mantid is 3 to five inches long and bright green, light brown to tan, or a combination of those colors.

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison


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Additional Information

  • Praying Mantids – on the University of Kentucky website
  • It is often said that praying mantid females eat males during the mating process. Although this sometimes occurs, it doesn’t always happen: the male is often able to escape. Read more about this myth at the Urban Legends Reference Pages: www.snopes.com/critters/wild/mantis1.htm

19 comments

  1. I found a praying mantis while thinning out some ornamental grass this week. From this description, I’d say it was a Chinese PM. After I inadvertently disturbed it, I watched it for awhile and noticed the color seemed to change to light brown on the top. I looked around for egg cases but haven’t seen any yet. I called the neighborhood kids over to take a look and they informed me this was a female. I will be on the lookout for them now!

  2. Honestly, I’m disappointed! I thought they were always the good guys in the garden, but they’ll eat anything. Including their own kind. Going to have to find a new hero bug.

    • February 18, 2017
      Just took my Christmas lights off of a pine bush and I found a praying mantis egg. I didn’t see the egg in the fall when I put the lights on the bushes. For the past few years my brother would order the eggs and pass them out to people he knows. It will be nice to watch the pm’s grow.

  3. I thought the female praying matid eating the male’s head during the mating process was pretty gross. The insect population can be violent.

  4. I grow dahlias and often find PM in the garden. They are of the Chinese variety and get quite large. Was interesting to learn of the variety of their preferred menu. Everything!

  5. I thought these would be beneficial in the garden, but I now see they eat the bad as well as the good. Would be fascinating in school to watch as a science project for kids as well as adults.

  6. I did not know that they would eat whatever they could catch or that they shed their skin as they grow

  7. Interesting insects. Amazing how the species changes from country to country.

  8. interesting article. I have always been fascinated by praying mantids, as a kid it was neat to have one as a pet and get it to sit on your shoulder. a consistent diet of hand fed bugs seemed to keep the creature on the shoulder. We moved into a new home a couple of years ago and have been busily getting flower beds established. This year I transplanted my first mantids into the new beds. I am hoping I have created a welcoming environment for them, they do a very good job of controlling many pest.

  9. These have always been some of my favorites – their faces are so cool. I really like the picture above captioned “mantids are ambush predators” – it looks like he/she is ready to pounce on a tasty treat. With only 3 of 1500 species in the Midwest, it looks like I’ll have to plan a trip to see some different ones.

  10. Praying mantis can change their color to match surroundings and even sway to mimic plants moving in the breeze.

  11. I thought walking sticks were the same as praying mantis, but they are not. An interesting fact in the article was that occasionally the female eats the male’s head during the mating process.

  12. I have always wanted to see a mantis but have never been lucky. I didn’t realize that they can look so different from the typical picture that I have usually seen. I’ll have to keep hunting.

  13. Surprised to read over 1500 varieties? Did not know they often mimic their surroundings , and I am glad the male species often gets away from the female after mating. The females have always gotten a bad rap!

  14. I found one in my garden yesterday. I did not know they were cannibalistic. They look so peaceful.

  15. another wonderful article. I always thought of these as beneficial but didn’t realize they indiscriminate when eating.

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