The warmth of spring brings out the start of the gardening season as well as many leaf-and-stem-eating insects. Many times, it seems as soon as you get a handle on one bug, a different one shoots up and munches on all your hard work. It sounds tempting and easy to turn to a wide-spectrum insecticide, but they come with many negative side effects to our beneficial bugs, honeybees, human health, and the environment as a whole. The praying mantis is one of the most recognized of those beneficial insects. While they are pleasing to look at and fun to watch, the praying mantis is not to be underestimated. It is an apex predator in the bug world and adding them to your homestead will fill in an important role in your garden pest control system.
Let’s examine the praying mantis’ weapon arsenal from top to bottom to see all the benefits it can provide.
- On its head are two large dome-shaped eyes that almost cover the entire head region. They are supported by the neck which can swivel the head nearly 360◦. This allows the mantis to see prey approaching from the sides, ahead, and behind all at the same time.
- Their unique, short forearms look as if they are in prayer when, in fact, they are in a tucked position to aid in hiding from prey, as well as protecting their main weapons from damage. The undersides of the forearms have a feathery appearance but don’t be fooled, these sections are lined with sharp spikes to allow the mantis to get a fatal grip on its meal. She uses no venom to kill her prey, instead, the mantis grabs her food lightning fast—faster than the human eye can see. Then, turning it headfirst, the meal is devoured with their powerful jaws. This places hard-shelled beetles on the mantis menu where other predatory insects would be outclassed.
- Their long, thin, stick-like body can turn various colors allowing the hunter to blend completely into the background of its surroundings—a great advantage for a surprise attack. This is a deadly situation for bean beetles and butterflies; they get eaten before they can even lay their eggs.
- Where praying mantises don’t have ears as we would recognize them, they do have a sensory organ in their chest to allow them to hear the echolocation of bats. This allows the mantis to hunt at night with a lesser chance of becoming bat food. Many stem-eating bugs, such as caterpillars, beetles, and especially earwigs and slugs, feed at night and hide during the day. Instead of enjoying a late-night snack, they become the mantis’ snack instead.
- Both males and females have wings, female mantis seldom uses hers except to escape danger. Whereas the male mantis depends on his wings to get him from one female to another for mating. This brings us to an interesting part of the praying mantis life cycle. Mating is risky business in the world of the praying mantis, for the female will not hesitate to turn her mate into a meal after completing the copulation, thereby supplying the female with a burst of protein and amino acids to help her eggs have a higher hatching rate. If he lives through the mating, he flies away to find another female.
A point could be made that praying mantises do not know the difference between good bugs and pests. When praying mantises hatch out of their egg case, they are a tiny army of eating machines that are not dependent on flowers and pollen for their food. The hungry tiny mantises are instead ready to devour grubs, aphids, and egg-laying moths to name just a few. Knowing they will enjoy clearing your plants of the insects such as nasty Japanese beetles is a reason to dance. Especially in your rose gardens.
Watch Out for Native Praying Mantis Imposters
The Chinese praying mantis is an invasive species that was introduced to the United States in 1896 as pest control to eliminate the gypsy moth. Sadly—as is usually the case when outside species are brought into an environment—what sounded like a good idea goes very wrong.
The Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis)is larger and stronger than the U.S. native Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis Carolina). These differences make competing for food very one-sided. The establishment of the Chinese mantis for over 100 years has allowed it to be on the top of the food chain. Although there is a small population of true Carolina mantis still in the wild, in many places the native mantis no longer exists.
Homesteaders and gardeners alike will want to familiarize themselves with the differences between the Carolina mantis and the Chinese mantis to ensure they’re not introducing a harmful invasive species to their piece of land.
Introducing Praying Mantis on the Homestead
So how do you introduce praying mantis to your gardens? There are many internet gardening, seed, and supply sites that mail order. This makes ordering praying mantis is simple and affordable.
Since the egg cases come ready to hatch, you need to have a plan already in place before they arrive. Having them hatch inside your house or car is not a good experience.
Here are some hints to make your new recruits happy in their new home:
- The temperatures need to be above freezing both the day and night, so, don’t order your egg cases too early. To find out when your last frost dates are in your area, the Farmer’s Almanac, seed catalog, and USDA weather sites are good places to start.
- Be sure the leaves on the plants you want your praying mantises to hunt on and around are open. They need shelter and concealment from their prey, as well as from predators.
- As the baby mantises shed their exoskeleton and grow to adult size, the number of bugs they eat also increases. The mature strength of the jaws allows them to chomp through hard-shelled beetles that some other beneficial bugs are unable to eat. This doesn’t mean you, the gardener, are at any risk; you, of course, don’t look like food to a praying mantis.
As late autumn comes and the last of the leaves fall to the ground, the praying mantis changes focus from eating to mating. After mating, the female will wrap the moist egg sac on a small branch or twig and these egg cases will harden into a durable material that will protect them through the winter. Although the lives of the adult mantis are now over, their young will be ready to hatch a new generation again in the next year.
This year, don’t let all your hard work be munched away one bite at a time. Introduce these predators into your gardens and know they are busy devouring problem insects such as leaf-, stem-, and bloom-eating insects. Introducing praying mantis on your homestead will save your gardens while actually helping the environment.