It is usually in the late Summer and early Fall. I go into a state of high vigilance as I go on the lookout for one of those most interesting of insects, the praying mantises. When the weather is hot and the vegetation is lush in mid season, I almost never see them. It is not that they are not there. It is that they are secretive, stealthy hunters who are well camouflaged in the vegetation they use for ambush. They are busy eating and growing in the run up to the mating season when their normally solitary existence begins to change to something more social. Once the Summer starts to fade into Fall, I know I can count on seeing one or two of them, usually females, somewhere in my yard. Nevertheless, there is always an element of suspense to my annual search. I never know for sure when and where I will have that first sighting. I just know I can't wait.
Perhaps I should call it a hunt even though that sounds too predatory for the way I feel. If I am the hunter or predator in this case, it is only with my eyes and my camera. My shot does not ring out with the explosion of gunpowder and my target does not fall fatally wounded from a high tech projectile hurled from ambush. I do not stuff their murdered bodies and mount them in my den for all to see and I don't eat them. I am only after the image and maybe the connection with this most interesting creature, not the body and not the soul. I have to trust that those are simply wrong who believe that by capturing an image I am imprisoning a soul .
The first sighting of an adult mantis is always a thrill. This year it was a real bonanza. There were three different mantises in one bush at the same time. They were in a place I always check because at least one seems to show up there every year. I worried that these three might encounter each other and that some sort of conflict might ensue. Nothing happened that I could see. The three of them stayed there for most of the last part of Summer. They were all females and it was egg laying time. Conflict with others was probably the last thing on their minds.
Finding that first mantis is one thing. Getting the photograph I want is another. Don't get me wrong. It is very easy to get a picture of a mantis once you have found the insect. They are very cooperative in that way. It is almost as if they can't wait to pose for the camera. And that is precisely the problem. Getting a candid shot of a mantis is a bit of a challenge because the are difficult to sneak up on. Here I have spotted one deeply concealed in a bush but I can get only one shot off before she turns and looks me straight in the eye. So much for mantis candids.
They are very wary but show little or no fear of humans. If they do feel threatened, they either move away or turn toward the threat and show a threatening posture of their own. Even though they can fly, that doesn't seem to be their first impulse when confronted.
Both of the adult mantises in this entry (one brown and one green) are female and both are heavy with eggs. Hence the large abdomens. In late Summer they lay their eggs in foamy secretion that forms a surprisingly tough bell-shaped case once it is dry. The foam comes out as a very wet, bubbly, sticky foam not unlike that expandable foam used by builders to insulate and fill cavities in home construction. It hardens quickly to form a tough, almost impenetrable place for the eggs to develop. The small case shown below was deposited late in the season by the very same female shown above in threat posture. The case is small as she was nearing the end of her egg supply and the end of her life cycle. Her last few eggs were probably laid in the smaller, incomplete case just to the right. She will spend the remaining days in a weakened state and vulnerable to predation by other creatures seeking provisions for the upcoming Winter.
If all goes well and some pesky parasitic wasp doesn't find the egg case right away, the little ones are safe for now. Over the cold months of Fall and Winter, they begin their slow development, accelerating when there are warm spells and slowing down during the coldest periods.
Most mantises don't survive their infancy. Those that do have made it through a gauntlet of spiders, wasps, birds, big raindrops, their own kin, and lots of other potential misfortunes. At least they do not have to worry about adult mantises. None of those will have survived the previous Fall or Winter. The big ones are all gone. Some of the new ones will grow up to be adults in their own rights and take their places among some of the top predators of the insect world.
Here is one of the adult females at work gathering in the last bits of nutrients for the season. She has caught a grasshopper. This is the same mantis that was looking so threatening in one of the photos above. For now she is getting just enough nutrition to see her through the physically demanding process of laying her eggs. While it might be difficult to tell them apart by color and some elements of structure, there is no mistaking their different roles. Mantis and grasshopper are diner and dinner respectively. It may not be pretty but it is what there is to be seen. So I watch and learn and share, another carryover from childhood.