In the Garden:
Praying mantid awaits its next meal atop a barrel cactus.
While brushing away leaves stuck to the top of a barrel cactus, movement from a praying mantid scurrying from my disruptive activities caught my eye. Praying mantids are intriguing insects that can be found in the garden in summer. Adult praying mantids are 2 to 3 inches long, with large eyes, wavy antennae, long skinny legs, and heads that swivel about 180 degrees to scope out their surroundings. The Southwest has around 10 native praying mantid species, including Pseudovates arizonae, commonly called unicorn mantid, because of the "horn" protruding from between its eyes.
Mantid coloration varies from green to tan to brown and helps camouflage them as they sit in wait for prey. Their common name derives from the enlarged legs held upright in a prayer pose, ready to reach out and grab unsuspecting passersby. Spines on the mantids' legs help hold their meal steady while they consume it.
The egg casings of praying mantids resemble blobs of brown styrofoam attached to plant stems or walls. Called oothecae, the quarter- to half-dollar-sized casings are made of a frothy protein substance that hardens into a protective mass surrounding dozens, even hundreds, of eggs. Not much can penetrate the casing, although a parasitic wasp can make a tiny hole in which to insert its own eggs. The casings are easy to miss, so take care to not inadvertently destroy them.
Praying mantids are considered beneficial predator insects, although they are not the most reliable pest control because they will eat just about any critter indiscriminately, including their siblings or desired beneficials such as green lacewings or butterfly caterpillars. The female may eat the male during or after mating! Even so, they make a fascinating critter for kids to observe in the garden.
Young praying mantids hatch from the egg casing as a hungry hoard, ready to eat. If no other insects are near, they consume each other. If you spot an egg casing in your yard, you might consider moving it to a pest-infested plant, to provide immediate fast food!
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