Naturalist’s Notebook: Killer Babies on the Loose!

One goal of my Naturalist’s Notebook messages is to encourage young scientists to observe things happening in your own yards. There are many stories to be told as the plants and animals around you go about their lives.

Yesterday on a bush not too far from my house I found a newborn preying mantis. It was very tiny and thin. Then I noticed two more on another leaf, and still more little mantids crawling across leaves and jumping from one leaf to another. They were all on the move. I was lucky that a couple sat still long enough for a quick photograph.

You never find that many preying mantids together unless they have just hatched from an egg case. In the fall, a female produced a mass of eggs that she glued onto a plant stem. It started out soft, but then got a hard outer layer that protected the eggs from weather and predators.Β  Once hardened, it was ready to survive winter weather.

Why were the youngsters in such a hurry? All of them were hungry, looking for their first meal. The babies look cute, but don’t be fooled. They are all born killers! Getting away from each other might be the difference between life and death. A preying mantis baby’s first meal could be one of their brothers or sisters that is not quite as large or fast.

Another reason to quickly spread out is that a little mantis would be a handy snack for a bird, lizard, or assassin bug. If a bunch stayed close together, it would make it even easier for the predator. Even though a newly-hatched preying mantis is a predator, it could quickly become prey to a larger animal.

A preying mantis has large, strong front legs that are folded and held like it is saying a prayer. Look at the photo of the baby that is looking at you to see how the front legs are held. Because of this some people think its name is praying mantis, (with an a, not an e.) The correct spelling is preying mantis. The arm position is not for prayer. It makes it easier to catch other creatures. The underside of the leg, which is hidden when folded, has quite a few wicked spikes to grab and hold whatever it catches.

What will these little guys, less than 1/4 inch long right now, look like as adults? They will be one of the giants in Tennessee’s insect world. They will be between 5 and 6 inches long and big enough to catch and eat something as large as a hummingbird!

They are called the Chinese Mantis, because they originally came from China. Egg cases were accidentally brought into the United States with a shipment of plants from that country. The weather here is quite a bit like that in China, so these great big mantids have done very well here. They are now the most common mantis in Tennessee. You can see some photos of an adult I took last fall in my garden.

I often collect their egg cases in the winter when they are easy to find and put them in different spots around the yard. These big insects are no danger to us and are good at eating insect pests in our gardens, providing natural pest control.

On the same bush the Chinese mantis were on, I also photographed several tiny leaf-eating black beetles with bright red spots. I thought “Uh, oh! Those beetles might get eaten.” A day or two later I checked and the beetles were still there.

There are two possible reasons the beetles didn’t become mantis snacks:

1. Although they were tiny, maybe they were still too large to eat

2. Remember what we’ve learned about insects with bright red and black coloration? Those are WARNING COLORS. All it might take is one little bite for a mantis to find out they taste terrible. From then on it will stay away from them.

As I said before, there are lots of stories to be found right in your yard. Now go out and find one you can write about in your nature journal.

See you next time!

Mr. Bill

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