News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

September 17, 2012

MIKE LUNSFORD: The ‘soothsayer’ who came to dinner

I’ve had a good time opening my mail these past few weeks. Sure, I still received the usual junk about lower credit card rates and satellite television packages, but the genuine letters made me smile; most were about a story I wrote in late August.

That column was about the “hidden beauty” of our drought-stricken summer, and in it I mentioned a praying mantis that had taken up residence on one of our hummingbird feeders. With that revelation going public, my readers took pen in hand, or in some cases, pulled their chairs up to a computer keyboard. But, one way or the other, they got their letters to me, and for that reason alone, I just had to read more about “mantids” and why people find them so interesting.

We have always had an abundance of praying mantises on our property, which is to my understanding, a good sign, both literally and figuratively. We have large hedges at the northernmost corners of our house, and I have seen mantises making their way through and over them like mountain climbers, silently complaining, I suppose, that the racket of my mower and weed whacker was interrupting their quests in search of a meal. Mantids have always been touted as beneficial insects, and it is true that they eat many garden pests like aphids and gnats, even the moths who leave their disgusting and hungry larvae on my shrubs.

In reality, however, praying mantises are gluttonous, voracious eating machines that consume just about anything they can catch, including the gentle and beautiful and pollinating insects who often become snack food before they can produce proper non-pest ID.

Nearly every letter writer wanted me to know that the mantis my wife had been scooting off her feeders in the evenings wasn’t there to share a slurp of sugar water with our hummingbirds. It was there, in all probability, to snare and eat a bird, something that I wouldn’t have believed had I not subsequently seen so much literature on the subject, even watched a rather gruesome home video of such an assault that the faint-of-heart should avoid.  

Emailer Norma Plasack wrote, “It might be a good idea to take your praying mantis for a walk into the woods and hope he doesn’t find his way back.” So, we did just that, but since we didn’t take prints or mugshots, we had no way of knowing if the mantis my wife found on the same feeder a few days later was the same one we had carted off.

I also received a note from a writer who identified herself only as Elizabeth. She wrote: “When I saw your photo of the praying mantis on the hummingbird feeder, it reminded me of how excited I was to have one on my hummingbird feeder last summer. I also took a good photo of it. Since then, ‘Birds and Blooms’ magazine has informed us that the praying mantis is a hummingbird predator!”

“Birds and Blooms” must have a circulation that rivals “Newsweek,” because I heard from a whole host of other folks who had read the same story. Pat Fash, one of my Illinois readers, said she discovered a mantis eating a hummer on one of her feeders. After brushing it away, she found the same mantis on the feeder the very next day, so Pat’s husband was forced to do what he had to do…

There are actually three species of praying mantises in the Midwest, and about 2,000 species worldwide. According to Purdue entomologist Tom Turpin, there are about 20 species in the United States. The clan that has staked out a homestead on our place could be a European (Mantis religiosa), a Chinese (Tenodera aridifolia), or a Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis Carolina). Considering its considerable size, our friend was probably both female and of the Chinese variety, although I doubt whether it will ever grow to rival the largest-known mantis that was spotted in southern China in 1929.

It was measured at 18 inches in length, which I don’t mind saying, sends a shiver up my spine and vaguely reminds me of an old science fiction movie I watched on the “Early Show” years ago.

The word “mantis” originated with the Greeks; it literally means “diviner” or “fortune-teller.” For that rather mystic reason, praying mantises seem to be steeped in folklore. In an article printed about a year ago by Carol Michel, the author quotes William Atherton Dupuy, whose “Insect Friends and Foes” was first printed in 1925. Dupuy wrote that the English came to call mantises “soothsayers,” and that many old-timers believed that the direction of a pointing mantis could lead lost children back home. It was also believed that young French women looked for mantises to point out the places from which their lovers would come.

In the scientific world, the praying mantis is an interesting study. Equipped with a head that can rotate 180 degrees, it can see and hear exceedingly well, while its antennae are “most likely used for smell.” Mantids do primarily eat insects, but they are arrogant enough to believe that the occasional frog or small mammal is fair game, too. In turn, bats, snakes, birds and large frogs are more than willing to dine on mantises. If that doesn’t happen, they cannibalize their own kind — which often happens to male mantises just after mating with the larger, more physical females. They really aren’t very finicky eaters at all. As friend Deanna Sinclair wrote in her letter to me, “When the mantises mate, it is a short honeymoon. The female bites the head off her mate.”

Our nights are getting cooler now; fall is in the air and creeping ever so closer on our calendars. In years when the winters are very mild, mantises have been known to live quite a while, but, for most part, they lay their eggs (which overwinter under a stem or leaf), and succumb to the cold and frost. So, not long after our hummingbirds have put up the storm windows, packed their bags and taken off for the Yucatan, our mantises are already counting their days. Some mantises can, in fact, fly, but they’re built for local commutes only.

It is said that just sighting a praying mantis is a sign of good luck. If that is the case, we have been blessed many times this summer. In folklore, the praying mantis has also been called a “rearhorse,” a “mule killer,” and “the devil’s coachman,” the latter epithet used because they appear to be holding the reins of a horse-drawn carriage.

We’ll look for mantises on our feeders next year, but I want to tell them right now: We know exactly what you’re up to.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He’ll be speaking to the “After 5 Women’s Christian Club of Terre Haute” at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College on Tuesday night.

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Mike Lunsford
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