Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Last Mantis

I have to say that for me there is something totally fascinating about praying mantises. I never tire of seeing them as I always do in late Summer and early Fall. Take a look at this one. On the one hand they are kind of comical. On the other hand they seem alien, almost like they are not from this planet. They are slow moving but capable of flight. They are clumsy afoot in their chosen habitats but swift of "hand" when it comes to capturing prey. They are masters of stealth and camouflage but easily seen once the eye is trained to look for them. So, permit me one more entry about mantises. Actually this one is about a particular praying mantis whom I got to know over the course of a few weeks, right outside my front door. I call her "The Last Mantis." The story is not pretty and a few of the images may be upsetting to some. Click on any image to see a larger version. Reader/viewer discretion is advised.

The Last Mantis

As the season stretched toward Winter without showing the slightest hint of what is to come, I continued to watch this one praying mantis just outside my front door where she had taken up residence in a large boxwood bush. Normally by this time of year all of them are gone. The females have deposited their last eggs into those tough brown egg cases and cold weather has weakened or killed them. Sightings are rare. The Last Mantis had already outlived her expected time. Her lifespan was extended into early November by the unseasonably warm temperatures of this year's Fall. For weeks, I had counted on seeing her in the same bush almost every morning as she basked in the early sun.

Sometimes it was not all that clear who was watching whom. At first when I approached, she would immediately turn and look at me with that typical mantis stare; the one that says, "I am watching you and I hope that's enough to keep you from getting too close." After a while, though, she seemed to get used to my presence and more often than not she just ignored me. Most days I did nothing more than just stand and look at her for a while. On a few occasions, I brought my camera out with me just to capture a few shots of whatever she was up to at the time. Sometimes she was moving slowly toward some other position. Other times she was eating. Mostly, though, she just seemed to be sitting there waiting and watching.

I suppose one could say she was hunting, but for her the hunt was not much of an active stalking, at least not at first. It was more like being in the right place at the right time. It meant being someplace where there was some reasonable likelihood that another insect would land nearby or perhaps crawl within striking range of those extremely quick forelegs. If something landed a bit too far away she would creep toward it but speed-of-leg was not her strength. It was the speed of those forelegs that really did the trick. She hung out in the upper parts of that boxwood where her favorite perch was at least four feet above the ground. That was something of a puzzle for me. Why was she so high in the bush when all of the good stuff seemed to be on the ground?

On several occasions, I had seen The Last Mantis consuming either a cricket or a grasshopper. No surprise that she would catch and eat them. The surprise was where she caught them. For some time I had wondered why I never saw the mantises down on the ground in the very thick grass where, it seems, all the grasshoppers and crickets lived. Instead mantises seemed to prefer the higher perches in bushes and heavier brush, at least during this time of year. Perhaps it has something to do with preferred egg laying sites. Whatever the choice, it did seem to work. Enough grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects ventured toward the upward reaches of the bushes to make large and presumably tasty meals for the mantises that waited there.

--- The Last Days ----
One day in late October, The Last Mantis managed to catch a really huge grasshopper,  much bigger than she could normally hope for in that bush and much larger than anything I had seen her tackle before. As it turns out, this largest meal was probably be her last, at least as far as I know.

Normally they eat from one end to the other. Everything goes down. This time it would be different. She removed one hind leg and ate the juiciest part of the large muscle before just dropping the rest of it to the ground. Then she moved to the soft body parts in the abdomen and thorax and ate her fill there. A little fly who, at any another time might, itself, have been a tasty morsel for the mantis, now sat right in front of her watching the feast, perhaps hoping to share some of the leftovers.

But this was not going to be a windfall for the fly, not that day. As I watched, The Last Mantis suddenly lifted her head from the open cavity, released her grip, and dropped what was left of the grasshopper to the ground. She was done. It was time for some preening to remove the spatters of the meal. I watched as she carefully wiped and licked every part of her face, eyes, forelimbs and anything else that had been soiled during the capture, struggle, and subsequent meal. She reminded me of a cat. The meticulous preening seemed such a counterpoint to the rather brutal scenario that preceded it.

Within seconds of hitting the ground, the grasshopper was discovered by dozens of ants who may already have been alerted by the earlier droppings from the meal. It was amazing. They dispatched the entire corpse in less than an hour. It was like it never happened. The ground was absolutely cleaned of any trace.

As for The Last Mantis, after cleaning herself all over, she just hung in the same place for a long time, upside down, her quick and powerful forelimbs just drooping, as if they were limp. She was looking down, almost reaching, toward the fallen grasshopper, now teeming with ants. She seemed to watch as they consumed the remains particle by particle. It was as if she were contemplating her own future; a future that would come sooner rather than later.

A few days later it got very cold. Nighttime temperatures fell into the thirties. I knew what that would mean for The Last Mantis but on the following days I went looking for her anyway. Nothing. I probed the bushes, gently pulling the branches apart so I could peer into the lower areas. To be honest, at this point I was looking for her remains, hoping to take her inside for some last photographs. Nothing. She was gone. Perhaps a bird picked her off or perhaps she dropped to the ground and the ants took her away. In any case I know I will never see her again.  She is now a memory, a collection of photographs, and another source of deep gratitude for my many experiences that come from just watching.

Oh, there is one more thing. In rambling through the branches of the bush looking for her body, I discovered one more fresh egg case left there by The Last Mantis. She had not wasted the nutrients she took in during her final days. Something to look forward to next Spring.


Unknown said...

It seems you had a great relationship with "The Last Mantis". You are observant, and sensitive. The story is captivating, and the photographs told the story. Very nice. Thanks.

Susan Carver Williams said...

Stillness, watching, waiting ... lost arts to most of us in this day and time, but you've shown yet again what we're missing right outside our front doors. This is a moving, informative, and well-written story. And the photographs are, as usual, superb. I hope your camera and your knees are always as good as they are now! And I wish you were publishing science textbooks for K-12. Seriously. More young people would love the natural sciences if their lessons were like this! Thanks so much.

Tom Stern said...

I was moving through an early Monday morning at my normal 100 mph clip, until I saw your post. It both captivated me and reminded me that the journey is not about getting there, it is about noticing life's abundance along the way. Thanks. Tom

Lea Adams said...

Okay. So the truth is that since I was a small child, I've had a real distaste for most things that creep and crawl and are smaller than me, and the praying mantis has long filled me with absolute terror. Which is why I was surprised to find myself reading your blog and actually looking at the photos. Somehow, knowing you took them made the whole thing -- and your Mantis friend -- a lot less threatening. Thanks for that. It's good to put fears into perspective. Oh ... you want to know what happened? Well, when I was about 5 years old, I tied a string around a praying mantis on my front porch, hoping to make it my pet. It attacked my little hand and actually drew blood before bounding away with the string dangling. Since then, I've never been comfortable with them around. Absolutely hated it when the egg sacs would break and dozens of the tiny green aliens would come teeming out in my back yard hedges. But I loved the story. And I'm not quite so terrified for the moment ... but who knows what my dreams will bring ... ugh!!


Penelope Nye said...

Jim this is really wonderful. I too have been fascinated by mantises and observed them for 5 minutes at a time here and there. Nothing like this kind of depth. I love your descriptions especially about the Last Mantis cleaning herself like a cat. Also the photos are wonderful - the way she looks at you too. Magic. Thank you.

Mariel Eaves said...

Beautiful & so sad. Yeah, I almost cried, what about it? Her story was a Tragedy told with such intimacy that I feel like I came to love her in the five minutes it took to read. I used to watch for praying mantises on my mother's cactus plant when we lived in Chapel Hill. They frightened me, but intrigued me just as much.

rhonda said...

Lee, thanks for bringing some mantis stillness into my day.

Rhonda said...

Jim, seeing that I just addressed you as Lee and didn't even notice until I hit submit, I guess it I could do with a whole lot more stillness....

Jim Henderson said...


I loved the Last Mantis, and I am touched by your observant love for her too. Wonderful care and attention! Thanks,

Ron Schooler said...

Such a fascinating creature. I was delighted to read your observations, and the photos are stellar.

In tropical Africa, where I lived during a big part of the '60s and ''70s, mostly in the "bush," I saw some very specialized varieties of praying mantises. Some looked like they were camouflaged for individual wild flowers, and they came in a variety of sizes. Apparently--this would drive the "creationists" mad--there are lots of new subspecies appearing in places like Congo, which haven't been documented. Sadly, there are also probably species that are dying out.

I always thought the dichotomy of "praying" and "preying" was interesting. The French name for the insect is mante religieuse, which makes it a nun praying. I guess "praying" is anthropomorphic, while "preying" is scientific.

Marjorie said...

I love (well love is not quite the word) your praying mantises. I realize now that last summer I took many pictures of a praying mantis that was on our doorstep and front stoop, sitting there without moving for ages. I stared and he/she stared back. I had forgotten this. Of course mine were pictures and yours are photographs - snap shots as opposed to art. Amazing as always.
-Marjorie Scheer