I don’t often see praying mantises, but I did see one the other day. I skated past it on a country road and stopped to observe it standing tall and proud on the tarmac. After taking a picture or two, I thought I better try to get it to move along, seeing as it was perfectly positioned to get squished by the next passing car. This was easier said than done however, as in concordance with all my previous encounters with these audacious insects - this dude wasn’t going anywhere. He made himself as big as possible and opened his wings dramatically with great flair and gravitas. They always remind me of Spanish bullfighters when they do this, waving their cape and saying “Olé”. Completely undeterred by my gentle suggestions that perhaps the señor should move along, he squared up to me as if to say, “Come on then, give me your best shot cabrón”. Eventually, he did fly off, but they do seem to be around now, and after a friend of mine managed to take these great pictures of some he found at work, I thought this would be a good excuse to find out more about these majestic and bold bugs...
There are 2,400 species of praying mantis in the world, and as you can imagine there are some pretty crazy looking ones. There’s the ghost mantis in Africa, for example, that’s utterly indistinguishable from a dead leaf. Or the tiny but beautiful Malaysian orchid mantis that hides in the pretty pink flowers of orchids and springs a deadly trap on unsuspecting pollinators. However, as incredible as all these are, I say we focus on the types that we have a chance of spotting here in Portugal.
In Portuguese, they are called ‘louva-a-deus’ and, as far as I’ve been able to find out, there are two types that you are likely to see.
There’s the common European mantis (Mantis religiosa) and the conehead mantis (Empusa pennata). Even though they are both the same size, they are quite easy to tell apart. The clue, admittedly, is in the name. The conehead mantis has a cone that sticks out the top of his head (the male conehead has two incredible ‘feather-like’ antennae as well) and they can be a mix of green, brown and pink. The European mantis on the other hand just has ‘normal’ looking antennae and can be green, brown and yellow.
But let’s get on to the more universal characteristics of these almost alien-looking creatures. They are called praying mantis because their forearms are folded together and look like they are praying. However, the more I found out about these voracious predators, the more it seemed like it’s their prey that should be doing the praying. These folded forearms are, in fact, extremely deadly weapons with a series of sharp barbs on the inside. With razor-sharp precision, they spring forward and clamp and impale anybody that strays or flutters too close. Once they’ve skewered their victim, they don’t administer a killing bite. Nope. They like their food so fresh it’s still wiggling, and immediately start to tuck in and eat their victims alive. Once they’ve finished they never forget to wash up their cutlery, and set about meticulously cleaning up their formidable forearms, ensuring they are ready to strike again next time.
They have quite an appetite and eat the things you might expect: flies, moths, crickets, and grasshoppers are a particular favourite. However, quite unbelievably, they are also known to tackle larger things like small birds, snakes and even fish. Inspired after watching the terrific TV series ‘The Durrells’, I decided to read the book ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell. Gerald describes, over four whole pages, an epic battle between a praying mantis he called Cicely, and a house gecko called Geronimo. Unsurprisingly, Cicely wouldn’t back down and after fair warning, Geronimo charged. To cut a long battle short, Geronimo emerged victorious (but not unscathed) which I figured was to be expected. After all, does an insect really expect to have a chance against a reptile? However, I’ve had to rethink this, as while researching for this story I watched a Youtube video of a praying mantis catching a lizard (who was planning on eating it) by the neck and clamping down on it. The lizard looked just as shocked as I must have done, and even when it snapped out of it and managed to get away, the mantis was hot on its tail and caught up to finish the job.
The females are larger than the males and they are the ultimate femme fatale. You see, they like to eat their mates. This means that even though they do look quite impressive when they spread their wings (not to mention the male conehead mantises beautiful ‘feather’ antennae) the male probably shouldn’t try prancing and posing in front of her, as she will probably think of him as more than just a little eye candy - and actually have him for lunch. The males best bet therefore is to creep up behind her. This can prove tricky. What with the fact that praying mantises heads can rotate a full 180 degrees. The male, therefore, employs a ‘stop and go’ routine, freezing every time she looks back. He also sways from side to side in their characteristic way (to look like a leaf blowing in the wind) and, when he gets close enough, he jumps on top and, well… clings on for dear life. Even this is risky as she still might turn around and ‘bite his head off about it’. But even when he’s lost his head, his automatic mechanisms kick in and allow him to ‘keep going’ anyway. The advantage of this is that she often likes him better headless and lets him stay on longer. This improves the probability that his genes will pass on to the next generation.
Some theories have it that the male doesn’t mind getting eaten as he probably won’t live much longer anyway (mantises only live a year at most) and his body could be his way of ‘providing for his children’, making sure their mother stays strong and lays her eggs without a hitch.
However, I read that this theory is contested by some scientists who observe that, when it comes right down to it: “The male seems to try to avoid his cannibalization very actively”.
In any case, a week or so later the female will form a foamy sort of deposit called the ‘ootheca’, which contains around 200 eggs. They do this in autumn and the ootheca hardens around the eggs and protects them until they hatch out in spring and a new generation of these intrepid insects begins.
I have to say that after finding out more about them, I’m quite pleased that one, I’m not a male mantis, and two, that I’m not in the movie ‘Honey, I shrunk the kids’, because if I was tiny and stuck outside, these garden gladiators would quickly become rather terrifying.