Wild Ideas: A newly noticeable native mantis

Love, prey, eat (order may vary)

It’s widely believed that female mantises, in the process of mating, will decapitate the males and then eat them, while the male’s headless body will blithely continue to attempt to mate. The truth is that the female, rather being a cruel seductress bent on murder, is more likely just sometimes surprised by a male, which is smaller than she is, landing on her back to mate.

Not immediately recognizing he’s a suitor, she treats him like prey, disabling him by removing his head before consuming the much-needed protein he has to offer. This phenomenon has been observed more in captive mantises, which are typically under more stress than those in the wild, and only a few of the 180 mantid species engage in this “shocking practice,” reports PBS.org.

As the website further explains, “when the male loses his head — literally — it blocks normal inhibitory nerve impulses and he becomes more abandoned sexually.” The male ultimately reaches his ultimate goal — having his genes go on — so is still a winner, albeit making the ultimate sacrifice in the process.

Whatever prey the mantis goes after, it is an effective predator. I was intrigued some years ago at seeing a female methodically take apart a large bumblebee she’d caught. Instead of trying to chew her way through the thick exoskeleton of the bee’s abdomen or thorax, she went right to a leg and pulled it out.

This gave her easy access to the softer material inside the thorax, which she started consuming while the bee’s other five legs were still kicking. It was a fascinating, if somewhat chilling, lesson in the pragmatism and efficiency of this species. Fortunately, mantises also consume pests, including brown marmorated stink bugs.

Serendipity, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for.” Over the course of just a few days and at two locations, I encountered an insect that was new to me. At first I thought it might be a combination of serendipity and my “bugdar” (my word for the sort of radar that allows you to spot small, well-camouflaged invertebrates), but was it?

The first bug sighting was at Bruce and Susan Jones’ place. Bruce was giving me a tour of some of his many naturalizing projects and, as we were going along a path that had dogwood on one side, my bugdar apparently kicked into peak operating mode. I spotted a tiny, mottled creature, perfectly still, staring out from a cluster of the dogwood berries a few feet down the path and above us.

Two of what appeared to be blunt sticks (but were more likely legs) were pointing out from under what was distinctly a mantis head — small, triangular, with bulging eyes. The hunting style of mantises is to sit and wait patiently for prey, as this one apparently was doing. Knowing it was a mantis, but a species unfamiliar to me, I took some photos to help with identification later.

When I returned home, I compared the photos with the descriptions and photos of mantids at BugGuide.net, filtering out those that are not known to inhabit this area. I knew it was definitely not the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), which is the most common one here. The largest mantis in North America, it can grow to more than four inches long.

According to BugGuide.net, this mantis was introduced from China in 1896 and outcompetes many of the native mantises, which are in decline. As is typical of mantises, the Chinese mantis can change its color from all green or brown to green on its body with brown top wings. However, the protruding underwing remains green despite the mantis’ surroundings, another way to identify the species.

The mantis I’d seen was also not the European mantis (Mantis religiosa), another imported species. The species name means “religious” in Latin. This likely comes from this mantis’ holding its grasping forelegs up and folded in preparation for grabbing prey, which resembles clasped hands in prayer. The European colonists’ most likely thought the American mantids were the same species, or similar enough, to call them “praying mantis.”

This female Carolina mantis (spotted waiting for prey among dogwood berries) appears to be missing the last segments of its forelegs, or the legs are folded into the next segment so tightly they seem to have disappeared.
This female Carolina mantis (spotted waiting for prey among dogwood berries) appears to be missing the last segments of its forelegs, or the legs are folded into the next segment so tightly they seem to have disappeared.

Some sources suggest that the name “praying mantis” could also have come from the fact mantids are fierce predators that will even go after prey much bigger than themselves, and that the name evolved from the word “preying,” rather than “praying.”

The last three segments of the mantis’ forelegs have sharp, serrated ridges to help grab and hold prey. The large Chinese mantis will even grab the occasional small bird, reptile, fish or rodent that wanders by. (For a gruesome photo of a hummingbird that got too close, go to nativeplantwildlifegarden.com.)

The European mantis can grow to almost three inches long, including the wings, which extend beyond its body. It looks quite similar to the more common Chinese mantis, but has a black spot on each foreleg and can turn brown all over to match its environment. I’ve never seen one in the flesh, but it does inhabit Virginia. It, like the Chinese mantis, was imported, ostensibly to control native insect “pests.”

Not as shy as the Carolina mantis, the Chinese mantis will often stare back boldly at potential threats.
Not as shy as the Carolina mantis, the Chinese mantis will often stare back boldly at potential threats.

With other choices ruled out for the mantis at the Joneses’ place, I decided the most likely species was Stagmomantis carolina, commonly known as the Carolina mantis. Only a little more than two inches long, the females are usually darker and more mottled — dark-brown and white — than the males, as was the one at the Joneses’.

The female’s wings extend only about three quarters of the way down her wide body, rendering her “apparently flightless, or nearly so,” according to BugGuide.net. The mantis’ body was pretty well hidden by the dogwood berries, but the wings did seem short, and the abdomen was wide.

As with all three of these species, the Carolina female is larger (more specifically, fatter) than the male. In closely examining the photos, I found that this mantis appeared to be missing its last two foreleg segments, or else they were folded so tightly into the femur that they were hard to see.

Serendipity played a role again a few days later, when Berni Olson pointed out to me what she thought might also be a Carolina mantis on a sedum in front of her store, Ginger Hill Antiques. Serendipity in this case got a bit of a nudge in that I had been telling Berni about seeing the Carolina mantis at the Joneses’ a couple of days before. Always interested in nature, she was primed to note the appearance of the mantis on the sedum and, fortunately, shared the discovery with me.

The wide abdomen and short wings of this Carolina mantis indicate that it’s a female. It’s in the classic hunting position, with forelegs folded up. While it was thought to look like a human praying, the legs are actually poised to grab prey. This posture gives this and related mantises its other common name, praying mantis.Dan Lewis
The wide abdomen and short wings of this Carolina mantis indicate that it’s a female. It’s in the classic hunting position, with forelegs folded up. While it was thought to look like a human praying, the legs are actually poised to grab prey. This posture gives this and related mantises its other common name, praying mantis.

The mantis was hunkered down among the sedum’s stems, making it hard to see its whole body clearly. From what I could see, it looked much like the mantis I’d seen at the Joneses’. It definitely had the mottled stripes across its forelegs that I’d noted in the photos of the Carolina mantis at BugGuide.net (although, curiously, I ran across no mention of these markings in any of the references I consulted). Its body, although partly obscured, also appeared to be wide, which would make it a female.

I went back to Ginger Hill the next day, armed with my camera. Not finding the mantis on the sedum, I started looking elsewhere in the garden. My bugdar was apparently working that day, too, since I spotted a small mantis on a winterberry bush a few yards away from the sedum.

It was less mottled than the one I’d spotted at the Joneses’ and was more green, with brown wings. Still, its size and general coloration indicated it was a Carolina mantis. The wings extended to the end of the body, which was narrower than the mantis at the Joneses’, indicating it was a male.

This didn’t seem like the same mantis that Berni had shown me, so I checked with Berni’s partner, Dan Lewis, who had been the first to notice the mantis on the sedum. Dan sent a photo he’d taken, and the wide body and short wings clinched it — the one on the sedum was a female, not the same one I photographed.

So I had seen three different Carolina mantises in four days after never seeing one before in the decades I’ve lived in Virginia. Was this serendipity, or a sign that the species’ population is on the rise? While I like the idea of serendipity, I’m hoping the latter is true.

© 2014 Pam Owen

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”