2010-09-09 / News

Making friends with killers

Flotsam and Jetsam
By Donna Drago

I hadn’t seen a praying mantis in many years. Until last week, that is, when I spotted one hanging around under the pumpkin vine in our yard.

I was more than 20 feet away when I saw it. It was roughly the thickness and color of a segment of the vine, so I don’t know how I was able to distinguish it, given its clever disguise as part of the plant. But, I did.

I went over to check it out and was delighted when it cocked its articulated head to size me up at the same time. I went into the house to get my camera and let it pose for me while I clicked off several shots. I have photos of the mantis looking toward the right, toward the left and looking coyly at the camera with its five eyes. In the last few shots, it is hanging upside down and glaring at me between its massive front legs.

Having the praying mantis in the yard reminded me of my childhood “pet” mantis, which hung around our house for the better part of the summer when I was about seven years old.

We lived in a suburb of Syracuse, N.Y. then, and had an ordinary looking split-level ranch with ordinary landscaping around the front door. I’m pretty sure it was a yew shrub that was the home of my mantis friend.

The shrub was to the right of the front door if you were coming out of the house, and it was clipped with a flat top – just below my height at the time, which was probably about four feet. This was perfect for my mantis and me, because when I walked out the door, there he was at near eye level. He didn’t sit on top of the shrub – instead, he maintained a small lair just below the surface.

He could see what was going on outside the shrub, but unless you knew he was there, you could not see him. So, when I came outside, he would pop out of his hiding spot and let me play with him for a while. I would put my hand out and let this giant of a bug – maybe five inches long – walk over my hands and up my arms. Sometimes, he sat on my head.

I hate to put thoughts into the head of a praying mantis, but I really think he liked me as much as I liked him.

One day, I came out of the house and saw my mantis on top of the yew, but he did not look like himself. He was pale and lifeless, and I got nervous until I saw the new and improved mantis poke out from his usual spot in the shrub. He had shed his brownish flaky exoskeleton and left it on top of the bush to presumably be taken out with the trash. The new mantis was a brighter green and quite a lot bigger – he was stunning (if bugs can be stunning)!

Then one day, I came outside and he did not poke his head out as he usually did. So I peeked inside his hole and caught him in the act of tearing the head off a large grasshopper. The grasshopper was still alive and his legs were wiggling wildly as his head was being removed. The mantis was obviously busy and so pretended that I did not exist, which gave me a few more moments to examine his apartment. It was absolutely full of other very large and very dead mostly-eaten insects.

It was rather disgusting. I felt let down.

I think the mantis must have sensed that our relationship had changed in some way, so it wasn’t long until he moved out and I never saw him again.

The new mantis in my life hasn’t attempted to make physical contact with me, and I’m okay with that. I know he spends his days hiding under his big, umbrella-like leaf, patiently waiting to execute some tasty morsel. I’m okay with that, too.

In fact, praying mantises are the professional killers of the insect world and every one of their features – from the articulated head, to their strong, serrated-knifelike front legs, to eyes that can see up to 60 feet – allows them to expertly catch and kill their prey. If the opportunity presents itself, a praying mantis will actually kill and devour mice – and even hummingbirds!

Despite their dark side, I hope this mantis sticks around for a while. He reminds me of more innocent times, when bugs could be friends and one’s own imagination was the catalyst for a summer of happy playtime.

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