The Preying Mantis: Friend to Gardeners, but Nightmare to Insects

The preying mantis is well equipped to thin the population of destructive insects.
The preying mantis is well equipped to thin the population of destructive insects.

The last two years have been kind to the insect population in north Florida, and 2015 appears to be continuing the trend. The weather has provided enough rain for those bugs which depend on the generous supply of foliage and the temperatures are returning to an agreeable range for population growth.

Stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, grasshoppers, all sizes of caterpillars and many more are hatching bent on enjoying the lush and plentiful dining selections. Homeowners and gardeners may soon be plagued by the sudden appearance of hordes of hungry pest which are eyeing the menu choices at a residence’s landscape.

Fortunately, nature has a way of equalizing all situations when left to its own devices. With the increase of the plant eaters comes those insects which restrain their population explosions.

One of the most easily recognized predator insects is the praying mantis. This beneficial insect is actually a family with multiple members, some of which have been introduced to Florida.

While there are over 2400 mantis members worldwide, Florida is home to eleven natives. Two of those have been introduced from other regions, but are not considered invasive.

Mantises are thought to have evolved during the Cretaceous period about 100 million years ago, possibly from a predatory cockroach with similar front legs. Their closest surviving insect relatives are cockroaches and termites, both of which they will consume if given the opportunity.

Like many insects, the mantis is equipped with a tough, durable exoskeleton which provides a basis for successful close quarter combat and meal procurement. These hunters have three other advantages which create a severe vulnerability in their prey’s defense and potential for surviving a mantis encounter.

The mantis is an ambush predator which will lay in wait for the victim/meal to deliver itself. The mantis has the instinctive ability to identify and hide in areas with high amounts of prey traffic.

This insect is a master at stealth and camouflage. The creature’s coloration and linear shape allow it to blend into the many natural settings.
To complement this facility to conceal itself in plain sight, the mantis can hold perfectly still and patiently wait for the oblivious animal to bumble into sticking range. At that precise moment, the mantis is a blur of lethal motion.

The mantis’ forelimbs are a set of deadly spiked vices used to immobilize and secure its target. It extends these spiny levers forward in a raised position which appears as though it is in prayer, hence its name.

The intended kill technique is to impale and restrain the victim with a single stroke of the forelimbs while holding the victim securely to the mantis’ body. On occasion the attempt fails and the mantis has to apply a more direct approach.

This insect’s beak is designed for slicing and tearing its victims flesh. The jaws provide the power to effectively employ this means to its meal’s head.

Depending on its stage of life, the mantis will eat a wide variety of creatures. Early stage mantises will eat little flies and other tiny insect (including its siblings), but at maturity they will take on small reptiles and amphibians along with a variety of destructive insects.

Despite its vicious nature, the praying mantis is the soon-to-emerge answer to many gardeners’ prayers.


Posted: March 20, 2015

Category: Natural Resources
Tags: Curiosities, Environmental Education, Garden Insects, Master Gardener, Panhandle Outdoors, Praying Mantis

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