European Mantis, <em>Mantis religiosa</em>.

European Mantis, Mantis religiosa.

This gentleman, who was lurking in the garden the other day, is a praying mantis. Specifically, he is, I think, a European Mantis, Mantis religiosa. This is an introduced species from Europe that has become naturalized over much of the U.S. Our native California mantis is much smaller.

I say “he.” This guy can be identified as a male because he has seven abdomen segments, as opposed to the female’s five, and he has stout, long antennae, as opposed to the wispy version sported by the female.

Mantises are formidable and not very discriminating predators. Gardeners argue whether they are beneficial, but it just depends. They’ll eat what they can catch. If you have a lot of nasty gnats and mosquitoes, they’ll eat those, and welcome to them. But if those are in short supply mantises don’t mind feasting on butterflies or even an occasional small hummingbird.

They blend in with leaves to await prey. Often their only movement is the sudden swiveling of their heads to view targets (or predators). Their necks are remarkably limber. They can turn their heads nearly 180 degrees, like owls. They do this to best focus their super-sharp, bulbous stereotopic eyes. This one has obviously spotted me and appears to be watching to make sure I’m not a predator.

Mantises rapidly lash out with their long front legs, grasping their unfortunate fortunate prey in sharp, serrated, vice-like pincers. Faced with a predator they extend their legs wide and wave them to appear larger and more formidable. In China a school of martial arts is named after and modeled on the behaviors of this fierce insect predator.

It’s not fair to judge folks by their relatives, right? So don’t hold it against the mantis that his closest relatives, zoologically speaking, are termites and cockroaches. Compared to those distant cousins, however, the mantis is a loner, uninterested in gang activities, content to live the life of a solitary hunter.

He will get aroused by a female though. If nothing else is around mantises will eat each other, and they practice sexual cannibalism. During intercourse the female will attempt to decapitate the male, which ensures and maybe intensifies his ejaculation while conveniently preventing the male from eating her. Therefore his strategy is to couple quickly, perhaps via a stealth attack from the rear, and then beat it before the petite mort of their rough sex becomes just la mort, tout court.

It’s a hell of a way to go through life. Good luck, fella.