The Female Praying Mantis: Sexual Predator or Misunderstood
The Female Praying Mantis: Sexual Predator or Misunderstood
"Placing them in the same jar, the male, in alarm, endeavoured to escape. In a few minutes the female succeeded in grasping him. She first bit off his front tarsus, and consumed the tibia and femur. Next she gnawed out his left eye...it seems to be only by accident that a male ever escapes alive from the embraces of his partner" Leland Ossian Howard, Science, 1886. (7)
The praying mantis has historically been a popular subject of mythology and folklore. In France, people believed a praying mantis would point a lost child home. In Arabic and Turkish cultures, a mantis was thought to point toward Mecca. In Africa, the mantis was thought to brink good luck to whomever it landed on and even restore life to the dead. In the U.S. they were thought to blind men and kill horses. Europeans believed they were highly worshipful to god since they always seemed to be praying. In China, nothing cured bedwetting better than roasted mantis eggs. (7) The praying mantis is known for its unique look and very interesting aspects of behavior. Their bodies consist of three distinct regions: a moveable triangular head, abdomen and thorax. It is the only insect capable of moving its head from side to side like humans. Compound eyes help give them good eyesight, but it must move its head to center its vision optimally, also much like a human. Females usually have a heavier abdomen than males. Legs and wings are attached to the thorax and elongated to create a distinctive "neck". Its front legs are modified as graspers with strong spikes used for grabbing and holding prey. (2) To say the least, the mantis is a highly evolved curiosity with raptorial limbs that can regenerate when young, wings for flight, ears for hunting and evading predators, and mysterious behavior. With such highly evolved bodies for capturing and seizing prey, why are females infamous for their sexual cannibalism of males?
The mantis has an enormous appetite, eating up to sixteen crickets a day, but is not limited to just insects. They are carnivorous and cannibalistic, and only eat live prey in both nymph and adult stages. Although customarily they eat cockroach-type insects, they prefer soft-bodied insects like flies. They have been documented eating 21 species of insects, soft-shelled turtles, mice, frogs, birds, and newts. (2) Although the European mantis was introduced to the United States to eat insects that destroy farm crops, other species are known informally as "soothsayers," "devil's horses," "mule killers," and "camel crickets" since their saliva was mistakenly thought to poison farm livestock.
Because of the interesting sexual cannibalism of the species, there have been many studies on the praying mantids reproductive processes. Breeding season is during the late summer season in temperate climates. (5) The female secretes a pheromone to attract and show that she is receptive to the mate. The male then approaches her with caution. The most common courtship is when the male mantis approaches the female frontally, slowing its speed down as it nears. This has also been described as a beautiful ritual dance in which the female's final pose motions that she is ready. The second most common courtship is when the male approaches the female from behind, speeding up as it nears. He then jumps on her back, they mate, and he flies away quickly. It is most seldom that courtship occurs with the male remaining passive until approached by the female.
The actual mating response process has been described as an initial visual fixation on the female, followed by fluctuation of the antennae and a slow and deliberate approach. Abdominal flex displays with a flying leap on the back of the female are executed in order to mount her. The female lashes her antennae and there is rhythmic S-bending of the abdomen. During one experiment, mantids were observed in copulation for an average of six hours. The male flew away after mating. (6)
Although the praying mantis is known for its cannibalistic mating process in actuality it only occurs 5-31% of the time. Especially in laboratory conditions of bright lights and confinement, the female is more likely to eat the male as means of survival. "In nature, mating usually takes place under cover, so rather than leaning over the tank studying their every move, we left them alone and videotaped what happened. We were amazed at what we saw. Out of thirty matings, we didn't record one instance of cannibalism, and instead we saw an elaborate courtship display, with both sexes performing a ritual dance, stroking each other with their antennae before finally mating. It really was a lovely display". (7) There is one species, however, the Mantis religiosa, in which it is necessary that the head be removed for the mating to take effect properly. (5) Sexual cannibalism occurs most often if the female is hungry. But eating the head does causes the body to ejaculate faster. (3)
There are over 2000 species of praying mantids that display diverse shapes and sizes. They are camouflaged to blend into their environments from tropical flowers to fallen leaves. "And although they work around the same general lines- 'wait, seize, devour', behavior patterns between different species are as diverse as their body shape." (7) Some engage in sexual cannibalism more often than others. Those that do, it seems, are responsible for giving those that don't a bad reputation.
In our society that loves gory tales of sex and violence, it seems that we have focussed more on the fatal attraction aspect of the species than trying to figure out exactly why they do it. After all, being eaten also benefits the male since he serves as a kind of vitamin for his offspring so that they are strong enough to survive. And he gets to pass on his genes. The fact of the matter is that sexual cannibalism isn't that uncommon in nature. Especially in the insect world, male redback and orbweb spiders fall prey to their lovers, not to mention the infamous black widow. Have scientists focussed too much on the tales and myths of the deadly seductress? Have we misunderstood the praying mantis?
06/29/2005, from a Reader on the Web
your cite is very helpful. i have a pet praying mantis, still a baby and am feeding him wingless fruit flies. he loves them. got them from a local pet store. all the info was very interesting and very helpful. thanks!!
At the end of June my husband and I put up a screened gazebo on our patio. Within the first week, a praying mantis took up residence inside the gazebo. It has been there ever since (now being the first week of September). I never have figured out if ours is a male or female. The other day my husband mowed the grass and soon afterward there were two additional praying mantises on the outside of the screen. Yesterday I noticed one was inside, and today I discovered what I assume to be the first one with one of the newcomers in the mating position. Needless to say, I went to the internet to find out more about this subject. They have been together for several hours so it was good to know that this is normal behavior. Will have to wait to see what happens next. It would be nice to have the eggs laid inside our gazebo so we can try to watch what happens in the future.
We have been keeping mantids throughout the summer but the first one gave in to death although it lived for months in our environment. Tonight (9/15) we took in one we believe to be a female; very plump, and hope that she lays her eggs on our branches. she is about 4" in length and has a face shapped in a V with very dark eyes. Outside on the window are two smaller, 3", very light green ones that are asking for crickets. Can they smell them???? I doubt it but it's been a very busy year for mantids at our house this summer. We hope for an egg case and to keep them till next year. Any comments or suggestions are appreciated. It's our first year with these wonderful creatures. We have noticed a difference in shape of faces and eyes between our first one and this one. The first one's face was very wide and this one is very "V".
I was searching for praying mantis and came upon your website. I am a teacher and this week a praying mantis showed up on our windowsill (we are on the third floor). The students were at first scared, but I put it on my plant and it became the class pet. However, we have weekend classes in out building, including my classroom, used by a group who pays rent, and the kids are awful. I had to take "Chuck" outside and put him in the bushes to save him from the weekend kids who may harm him (we're assuming its a he). The mantis climbed all over the place, thrilling the kids. This afternoon it jumped on my back from the bulletin board! I hope "Chuck" is going to be OK. Maybe he'll come back! Love your website!
In our garden we came upon a male mantis mating with a female. She then turned her head around and bit the head of the male and then ripped his head off. What was most interesting to me after that was that his body still seemed very alive. He continued to wrap his genitals around hers and mate. Even when she moved and they were apart for a second or two, the headless male continued to wrap his body around hers and the genitalia met again.
We just got back from a Christmas vacation and found a gazillion itty bitty creatures on the chair arms & sides, the walls and ceilings. We think the eggs were on our live Norfolk Pine Christmas tree. It's January in Charlottesville, VA and 46 degrees - not ideal timing for little praying mantises. We put some outside anyway against an exterior wall with a pile of leaves that might provide protection and food. Of course, we are still finding some inside. Any suggestions of what we can most humanely do with them? Diego
Hello i have seen like 5 praying mantis' in my yard and they are big and little. Is it just a myth that they are poisonous and that they can sting you? Are they harmless? I am so scared of them because i dont know but they love to look at me tell me please if they are ok or not!!!! ... Angel, 19 September 2006