The preying praying insect

Praying Mantis camouflaged. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself spending my mornings at the Indian Christian Cemetery on Hosur Road. My daughter Tara’s school is next to the cemetery and I have often photographed a variety of butterflies, birds and squirrels while waiting for her to finish. One day I decided to spend my mornings wandering around the cemetery instead of coming home and then returning to pick her up. The cemetery has a lot of green cover with flowering shrubs and large trees. At least this part of the green cover in Bengaluru will be spared from the development works in progress.

Praying Mantis eating a bee. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

One morning after photographing a few butterflies, I was taking a break on one of the many benches in the cemetery when I noticed a lovely Poinsettia bush in flower. After a while I walked over and noticed to my delight that there was a lot of butterfly activity around the bush. However on closer inspection I noticed something different. A praying mantis!

A praying mantis is an insect of the order Mantodea. They are long and slender and are very efficient predators. For this reason we very often misspell them as ‘preying’ mantis. They look very similar to grasshoppers and get their first name ‘praying’ from their typical “prayer-like” stance. They are carnivorous insects that feed mainly on other insects including butterflies and even bees!

Praying Mantis ready to strike. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

Praying mantis are very well camouflaged in the foliage and it is very difficult to spot them. They use this to their advantage while hunting. They blend in to their surroundings and then wait patiently for their prey to come within striking distance. Once within striking distance they use their vice-like front legs to snatch the victim and devour them alive. Praying mantis are solitary hunters and they do not scavenge.

Praying Mantis with a butterfly kill. Pic: Vikram Nanjappa.

While observing my friend in the Poinsettia bush, I was not only fortunate to witness this technique over a couple of days but was actually able to photograph it in action. Day after day it would take up its position on the bush and wait for its unsuspecting prey to appear. The killing strike was fast and precise. I only saw it miss once.

The praying mantis is in turn preyed upon by large frogs, monkeys, large birds, bats and snakes. Being cannibals, praying mantis also prey on each other especially after mating. There is an interesting fact when it comes to the bats. Male praying mantis fly at night as they are attracted by light and this is when bats are up and about looking to feed. Bats use ultrasonic sound waves to track their prey. According to some researchers (Yager and May) the praying mantis is able to hear these sound waves and when they hear a bat getting close they dive down at high speed towards the safety of the ground making a downward spiral or acrobatic loop.

Some interesting facts about praying mantis.

  • They have excellent eyesight and can see up to about 50 feet away.
  • It is believed that the female mantis will eat the male after mating since the protein helps in egg development.
  • It is the only insect that can rotate its alien-like head almost completely around. This flexibility helps with their hunting.
  • The praying mantis is actually more closely related to the cockroach than to grasshoppers.
  • The earliest fossils of the praying mantis are from Oligocene, a geologic epoch dating around 23 to 34 million years ago.
  • The word “mantis” comes from the Greek word meaning prophet.
  • In Turkish and Arab cultures, the praying mantis is considered to be pointing to their religious center, Mecca.
  • In French culture, the praying mantis can supposedly guide a lost child home.
  • In China, their roasted eggs were eaten to treat bedwetting.
  • Southern Praying Mantis is a form of a kung fu that originated with the Hakka people who migrated to Southern China and settled into the Punti communities, though it has nothing to do with the praying mantis.

Observing the praying mantis go about its work was a fascinating experience and one that I would strongly recommend to everyone. My prayers however were for the prey rather than the praying mantis, for I am sure they needed them more than the mantis.

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