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The praying mantis is a fascinating insect belonging to the Madtodea family. There are over 2,000 species of mantids ranging from 2/5-inch (1 cm) to 6-inches (15.24 cm). These insects are harmless to man and can be found in tropical and warm climates around the world from South Africa, all the Americas, Southern Asia, Australia and Europe.
The coloring of the praying mantis ranges from light green to pink with the majority falling in the green or brown category to blend into their environment. This excellent camouflage serves a duel purpose in protecting them from their numerous enemies as well as aiding in their hunting skills. The stick-like figures are often mistaken for a branch or leaf and prey have even been known to walk on top of them without realizing it.
The praying mantis has five eyes, allowing them to be formidable predators. They have two large compound eyes located on the sides of their head and three simple ones in between. Some species are capable of seeing at a distance of up to 60 ft (18 meters). Their triangular head and a long neck allow them the unique ability to swivel their heads 180 degrees.
It is easy to see why the praying mantis was named as such, as their front legs are positioned as if in prayer. Their strong powerful legs have spikes for grabbing and pinning their prey as they attack with their powerful jaws.
Praying mantises dine on beetles, butterflies, crickets, flies, grasshoppers, moths, spiders and many other species of insects. Their digestive systems also allow them to eat small tree frogs, hummingbirds, lizards, small rodents and snakes.
Because of their varied appetite, they are a great aid to farmers in agricultural pest control. The United States imported several species from Europe in the 1920’s for this purpose. Organic farmers purchase praying mantis eggs yearly to assist them with their crops.
For decades, it was believe that the mantises were cannibalistic and there is still controversy as to whether they eat their own kind. It has often been reported that the female will eat the male after mating. Later studies have revealed that this behavior was solely in laboratory observations or when researching them in the wild. It is now believed that because the praying mantises are so sensitive and aware of their surroundings that the behavior was strictly stress induced.
After late summer mating, the female will lay from 10 to 400 eggs in the fall. An outer hard shell protects the columns of eggs through the winter months and nymphs hatch the following spring. These small versions of the adults feast on aphids, small flies and leafhoppers until they grow their wings, functional genitalia and develop their coloring and a protective body covering.
In cold climates, the praying mantis will die off in the winter and the next generation will continue the next spring. With the warmer, tropical climates, they will enjoy a life span of 10-12 months.
Ancient China referred to the praying mantis with attributes of courage and fearlessness. The ancient Greeks honored them as prophets. In Japan, an 87 million year old amber has a praying mantis encased in it that many believe is the missing link between the modern-day insect and its ancestor. This suggests that the praying mantises are cousins to the termite and cockroach. There is only one species that is listed as “Lower Risk/Near Threatened.”