There is something slightly creepy about an insect that can turn its head to stare at you. Welcome to the creepy, yet fascinating, world of the praying mantis.

Almost 2,000 species of praying mantis (or mantid) exist worldwide, but only about 20 species are found in North America. The two we seem to be most familiar with are introduced species, the Chinese mantis (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis), and the European mantis (Mantis religiosa). A third, the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) is a common native species of the eastern United States. The Chinese mantis is the largest in our area, reaching lengths of up to 4 inches.

Scientific debate continues as to which order of insects the praying mantis belongs. Is it related to the cockroaches (order Dictyoptera), or to the crickets and grasshoppers (order Orthoptera)? Some argue that the praying mantis should be placed in its own order, Mantodea, and for now that is where it stays.

The praying mantis would be better named “preying mantis” due to its carnivorous habits. This insect is a voracious predator, feeding on beetles, butterflies, grasshoppers, spiders, and other invertebrates. (Some tropical species also feed on tree frogs and hummingbirds.) Its long front legs, held up as if in prayer, are sharply toothed and work together to grasp prey. They can extend a great distance from their folded position, aided by their attachment to the first segment of the mantid’s thorax. Normally fused to the second thoracic segment in other insects, the mantid’s first segment swings freely, allowing the mantid greater mobility; its front legs can move quickly from one side to the other to reach its prey. A solitary creature, the mantid spends its days sitting fairly motionless, waiting to ambush an unwary victim. Well-camouflaged in greens and browns it hunts for a meal in a logical place, such as near a flower blossom that draws an abundance of insects.

The praying mantis has excellent vision – two large compound eyes and three smaller simple eyes sit atop its triangular head. Add to that the ability to turn its head 180 degrees and you have an insect that sees everything.

In late summer a female praying mantis will send out chemical pheromones to attract a male. This is the time of year you are most likely to see a mantid fly as it searches for a mate. Female mantids are known to dine on the heads of their suitors while they are still mating – a nutritious snack to nourish the female’s eggs; it is the male’s final sacrifice to his future offspring.

Egg case. Ryan Hodnett CC-BY-SA-4.0

In early autumn the female lays her eggs on a twig or on the stem of a plant. As many as 200 eggs are deposited and then covered by a foamy substance that hardens to protect the eggs through the winter. The female may lay several of these egg cases. Look for a tan substance encircling a stem or twig in open areas (such as meadows and wooded edges) this winter.

Young mantid nymphs emerge from the eggs in late spring. They must disperse from the egg case quickly in order to avoid the cannibalistic nature of their hungry siblings. Each will live a solitary life until it is time to mate. While they are small they will feed on aphids and leafhoppers, then turn to larger prey as they continue to grow through the summer.

“Mantis” means prophet, and many cultures consider the praying mantis quite special. If you are lost in France and happen upon a praying mantis, head in the direction the mantis is facing and it will lead you home. In Arab cultures a mantis is believed to always point toward Mecca. A mantis will bring good luck to the person it lands on in Africa. And in China, eating roasted mantis eggs can cure bed-wetting. Apparently not so revered in the United States, the mantis was seriously thought to blind humans and kill horses.

Perhaps the mantis stares in pure amusement.

Cindi Kobak