Praying mantids are slender insects with triangular heads, large eyes, and a huge pair of front legs. Their name refers to the fact that when they fold their extra-large front legs, it looks like they are praying. Praying mantids are excellent hunters. They stalk, kill, and eat arthropods, small frogs, and lizards. They even prey on other praying mantids! They grab their prey with the spines and hooks of their giant front legs and begin eating with powerful, crushing jaws. If they were as large as a lions or tigers, they would be among the most frightening creatures on Earth.
Some mantids match the flowers they like to hunt in. An unsuspecting bee or butterfly doesn’t have a chance against these highly camouflaged mantids.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Preying Around the World
There are 2,000 species of praying mantids. They range in size from a few millimeters to 15 cm. Mantids are found worldwide, but most species live in warm tropical environments.
A Nasty Surprise Attack
The dung mantid blends in well when it is hunting the tiny flies found on and near elephant dung.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Many mantids are highly specialized for hunting in their specificenvironment. The dung mantid, for example, is a chocolate-colored insect only a couple of centimeters long. It lives in southern Africa and hunts small flies and other insects that are attracted to fresh piles of elephant poop. Like all mantids, it has two pair of wings and can fly when needed.
Fake-Out in the Flowers
Most mantids are well camouflaged by their colors and patterns. One group is called the “flower mantids” because they are bright pink, red, and white so they blend in with the flowers they hunt near. When bees and butterflies fly by, they don’t see the flower mantid lying in wait until it is too late.
Like other insects, praying mantids have three main body parts: the head, the thorax (middle section), and the abdomen (rear section). Unlike other insects, praying mantids can turn their heads completely around to look behind them!
Click below to learn more about these amazing insects and their special adaptations.
Young mantids hatch from their ootheca looking like tiny versions of their parents.©M.Durham/GLOBIO.org
Female praying mantids lay up to 400 eggs in a foam-like egg case called an ootheca. The ootheca dries to look and feel like hard paper. Inside the ootheca, the tiny insects hatch and develop. Some female mantid species stand guard over the ootheca. They protect it frompredators until the babies hatch. The babies look like miniature versions of mom. Shortly after hatching, baby praying mantids are able to use their front legs to catch small flies and other insects to eat. They even eat each other!
They Grow Up Fast
This new mantid nymph may molt up to 10 times before it becomes an adult with wings.©M.Durham/GLOBIO.org
Young mantids are called nymphs. They grow up in a very short period of time. During this growing phase, a young mantid may molt up to 10 times (depending on the species) before becoming an adult. Mantids grow larger with each molt. After the final molt, the mantid emerges with fully formed wings. At first, the wings are wrinkled and pale. They are useless for flying. After a few minutes, the mantid stretches its wings to their full size. The wings dry and allow the mantid to fly.
Praying mantids are very unusual looking insects and have always fascinated people. Different cultures have myths and legends that tell of the mantids’ supposed magical powers. Some powers were said to be for good, some for bad. One (untrue) story refers to mantids as “devil horses” and suggests that they spit blood into the eyes of their victims.
In China, praying mantids are kept in the house and garden as pets to bring good luck. They are even given at weddings for good luck.
Gobbling Up Garden Pests
People who garden often raise praying mantids as helpers. They buy an ootheca from a gardening store and place it in their garden. In a few weeks, baby praying mantids hatch and spread through the garden. They hunt and eat insects that might damage the garden’s flowers, vegetables, and trees. The use of natural pest controls like praying mantids and ladybugs has become a successful business in Europe and the United States.
Praying mantids are fascinating to people. Some keep them in their gardens and some keep them as pets. Some cultures believe mantids bring good luck.©M.Durham/GLOBIO.org