A praying mantis may look like a creature from a 1960s sci-fi film – but in reality, it’s a great insect to add to a garden when other pests are problematic. An extreme predator, the praying mantis has such a quick reaction speed that it can even catch a fly that lands nearby. If other insects are destroying your garden, a praying mantis is an efficient exterminator.
Voracious Appetite for Insects
A praying mantis loves to eat insects – so much so that it doesn’t seem to discriminate, eating both harmful and beneficial insects. In extreme cases when food supplies are low, they may even eat one another.
A young praying mantis eats soft-bodied creatures such as aphids, mosquitoes and caterpillars. When more mature, it can eat beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and just about any type of problematic garden insect. The praying mantis even feeds on moths at night.
Larger species of the praying mantis, found mostly in warm southern or tropical climates, even eat small rodents, nesting birds, tree frogs and lizards.
How They Find Food
A praying mantis sits, quietly camouflaged in its surroundings, until insects land nearby. While waiting for the next meal, a mantis holds its front “arms” up in a position quite peculiar for an insect, hence the moniker praying mantis.
When resting on branches or leaves, the praying mantis blends in extremely well with its surroundings, making it hard for predators or prey to spot it. It even has the ability to change its color slightly. The mantis also has an excellent sense of sight, able to notice even the slightest movements 60 feet away. Once a praying mantis catches an insect, it holds its prey with barbed forearms that help prevent the food from escaping.
Praying Mantis Lifespan
The praying mantis’s lifespan runs from spring to fall, similar to a garden’s growing season. In fall, a female mantis lays its eggs in a frothy casing called an ootheca, which hardens to protect the eggs over the winter. Each casing, stuck to a tree branch, fence post or building overhang, holds 200 or so eggs. The adult dies off in autumn, while the eggs hatch in spring, ready to start a new generation of mantises.
How to Obtain Praying Mantises
The best way to obtain praying mantises for your garden is to purchase the egg cases from an online supplier of beneficial insects, or from garden centers that carry them. Some online retailers also sell individual mantises that are already prepared to find insects in your garden.
Three egg cases, or approximately 600 eggs, hatch enough praying mantises to cover 5,000 square feet. The cases can be stored in a bag in the refrigerator until the weather outdoors is warm for several weeks. If it’s already warm outside, the egg cases are ready to be placed outside too.
Adding Mantis Eggs to a Garden
Pick a spot such as a twig or tree branch a foot or two off the ground with plenty of leaf cover. An area with filtered sunlight and with plenty of garden pests nearby is ideal. Attach the egg case to the branch, gently, with a twist tie. After 10 to 15 days, the eggs will hatch. You’ll know when you spot individual mantises hanging from silky threads nearby. After a few hours, they’ll venture off on their own, already ready to catch prey.
Do not place egg casings on the ground, as ants may eat the hatching mantises. Also do not place the casing far away from the garden or from potential insect food sources, as the tiny hatchlings may eat one another.
Garden Insect Considerations
Give your garden a good insect inspection before deciding to buy praying mantises. The types of insects most prevalent in the garden can help you make your decision; after all, a praying mantis will eat just about any moving creature that looks tasty to it, including those creatures you want to keep in the garden.
Take a good look around your garden or backyard to determine not only if there is a pest problem, but if other beneficial insects or creatures are already taking control of the situation. Toads and pond frogs can eat dozens of insects per day. Toads enjoy snacking on slugs, beetles, crickets and other garden pests.
Centipedes, some forms of spiders and even some beetle varieties are beneficial garden predators as well. The well-loved ladybug, also known as a lady beetle, eats insect eggs and larvae, mites, leafhoppers and other garden pests. Earwigs eat millipedes, mites and insect eggs. Some varieties of flies are even beneficial, eating other flies, mites, thrips, wasps and beetle larvae.
When to Skip the Mantis
If your garden is primarily a pollinator garden, attracting bumblebees, hummingbirds and butterflies, you may not want to add any praying mantises. The mantises will eat any of these creatures if other food sources are not available. If you ever find a praying mantis hanging out near your butterfly garden, for instance, consider relocating it to another area where more pesky bugs are prevalent. If you don’t have another garden, an area near water, trees or shrubs may be good, because insects such as mosquitoes are likely lurking nearby.
Keep praying mantises far away from hummingbird feeders and any plants that attract these birds, as a large praying mantis can and will catch them with ease. It’s best to not introduce any praying mantises to your yard or garden if you’ve noticed many bumblebees, butterflies or hummingbirds nearby. Pollinators are incredibly important to the ecosystem.
Mantis Fun Facts and Folklore
The praying mantis is an unusual creature, even for the insect world, thanks to its numerous unique traits. Its head can rotate 180 degrees in either direction, so it has an excellent field of vision. It has five eyes, yet only one ear, so it has difficulty determining the origin of a sound. However, its ultrasonic hearing ability makes the praying mantis excellent at evading bats.
A praying mantis’s reaction time is twice as fast as a housefly’s, making it excellent at both catching food and avoiding being eaten. A mantis can jump at least a couple of body lengths away in as little as one-tenth of a second. It is just as speedy at maneuvering around to the other side of a branch or twig when a predator swoops in for an attack.
The word mantis is a Greek term that means “prophet,” “soothsayer” or “seer.” This creature is considered good luck in some cultures. Long ago, the French believed that a praying mantis would help guide lost children to their homes.