Eat or be eaten

If you have the time and enjoy being outdoors, there are some interesting happenings occurring in area landscapes, mainly the battle of survival amongst insect populations. One of the more visible displays is the activity of the praying mantids.

They emerge from their egg cases in the early spring and can be difficult to see as they are very small.

Although barely noticeable, the survival of the fittest is already occurring. Hundreds of young mantids quickly fan out from the egg case in a search for food, and when it becomes scarce in the immediate area, they will turn on each other as a food source. This cannibalistic behavior carries on through their lives. In the extreme, a hungry female will eat its partner during the mating process.

The survivors eventually fan out into the surrounding landscape and expand their food choices by feeding on almost anything that moves. While they are small, their prey is smaller, such as fruit flies. But as the mantids molt (go through gradual metamorphosis), their food choices expand and they will feed on larger prey, such as grasshoppers, and this is when their activity is very noticeable.

While we tend to think of praying mantids as beneficial insects, feeding on the “bad bugs” that cause damage to our yards and gardens, they will feed on anything that moves. This behavior can easily be observed over the next few weeks. At times, you can observe one feeding on a beetle, caterpillar, or cricket. And then, on some other shrub, a mantid may be feasting on a pollinator such as a honeybee. This generalist feeding behavior doesn’t do much to control unwanted pests in the landscape.

The other fascinating aspect to watch is the feeding behavior itself. The mantids sit patiently for prey to wander into their zone. The front legs are tucked under their head in what appears to be a praying position (hence the name) and their heads swivel 180 degrees while searching for food. Once a meal appears, they pounce and ensnare the insect with spines located on those “praying” legs. The victim’s head is usually the first body part devoured.

The best way to encourage praying mantids in your yard is a two-prong strategy. Try to reduce or eliminate pesticides on your property, as many of these products are harmful to these critters or their food sources. In addition, consider planting a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers. Diversity within the landscape promotes a plethora of microclimates that encourage breeding, feeding, and overwintering.

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Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.

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