The Guardians: Praying Mantis

This has got to be the creepiest of the beneficial insects.  It freaks my wife and kids out to no end, but after learning about the protection they provide your plants, you can’t help but be grateful they are there, watching over your crops days and night.

Praying mantises live for about one year, and are well suited to the task of preying on pests.  They have two forearms called “raptorial legs” that are covered in spikes, and literally snatch flying insects out of the air.  Their heads have an amazing range of motion, allowing the mantis’s body to remain motionless but allowing it to see in all directions.  The praying mantis also has keener vision that most insects, as its’ compound eyes can see up to 50 feet away.  This enables the mantises to stay concealed using it’s adaptive camouflage, while it waits for the perfect moment to strike.  They are generally ambush predators and feed on crickets, grasshoppers, flies, moths, mites, aphids, each other…pretty much anything their size or smaller that moves.  Below is a photo of an egg case so you will know what they look like in the garden.  No need to be alarmed by these, they will soon produce an army of guardians to watch over your plants day and night.  I usually find them on a fence post on my farm.  The egg case is usually laid in the Fall and then the nymphs hatch when the weather has sufficiently warmed, usually in late Spring.

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© Hans Hillewaert, Mantis religiosa (egg case), CC BY-SA 4.0

Mantis Egg Case (contains hundreds of eggs)

Praying mantises hatch as super small versions of the adults, they will molt (called instar) several times as they grow.  Below is a photo of a nymph that I found on my Avocado tree.  Make sure you protect the young nymphs from ants by using a proactive defense such as this one.  Also be careful about applying pesticides, they can wipe out your beneficial insect population.  I always advocate trying to use natural controls (such as letting your beneficial population build up) and patience.  If a pest gets out of control, try using very targeted and organic methods such as Neem oil or insecticidal soaps to knock down the population.  Most likely you already have praying mantises in your area, but if not you can introduce some into your garden by buying some egg cases.

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Mantis nymph making his home on my Avacado tree

Praying mantises mate once in the Fall, which usually ends with the female biting the head off of the male.  (I can only imagine what the male said during the encounter to warrant that type of response from the female.) The male pays the ultimate sacrifice and ends up being a nice meal to ensure the female has enough energy to complete the egg case.  After laying the eggs the female will die, obviously riddled with guilt from her murderous deeds.

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