Monday, October 12, 2015

In the Garden of Those Creature Who Truly Live There: Mantises

            Is it a Praying Mantis? Or a Preying Mantis?
            As the snapshot ID by National Geographic laconically puts it, the mantis is a "carnivore." "By any name," the NG continues in its online article  (  "these fascinating insects are formidable predators."
            The article also tells us they should be called "praying mantids" even though the genus they belong to is "mantis." In addition to the elongated thorax, formidable front legs (bent to an ankle suggestive of "praying"), and their two large compound eyes -- which, I can testify, give a convincing impression of looking straight at you -- their heads can swivel a full 180 degrees, like some robotic humanoid.
            Indeed, I suspect when the insect kingdom replaces hominids as the dominant life form in the unknowable future of planet earth, some of them will look like your boss and behave like aircraft carrier flight controller, scanning the friendly skies.
            The National Geographic notes how well camouflaged these formidable hunters are as they "lie in ambush or patiently stalk their quarry." Their reflexes are so fast they can be hard to see with naked eye, but again, drawing on personal observation, I have seen one strike but miss catching a honey bee. On the other hand, maybe he didn't really want to catch it when he saw what he was hunting.
            The praying mantis's lower legs have spikes for holding on to what they do catch, the article tells us, while their jaws go after the tastier parts. "Moths, crickets, grasshoppers, flies, and other insects are usually the unfortunate recipients of unwanted mantid attention."
            In our case, the unfortunate victims are butterflies.
            The large mantises that stalk our garden disguise themselves as a green and brown leaf hanging from the upper branch of a butterfly bush (bodelia) in the front garden, directly below a purple blossom (see top photo). It somehow knows that this is the place the butterflies like to hang out. We have seen Monarch butterflies rest here for hours.
            So, last month when I happened to glance in that direction and noticed the wings of a black butterfly flapping wildly from side to side I guessed what had happened and arrived on the scene like the cavalry, or some oversized air-rescue unit. Those formidable "preying" front legs had latched on to a wing while the butterfly struggled to escape. I noticed however that the butterfly -- it resembled a swallowtail -- still kept its head. (Literally).
            Unable to think of anything better, I swatted at the mantis, and both predator and pray fell from the branch into the thick ground cover. Camouflage hid the mantis from sight, but the black winged butterfly was lying in clear sight on a mound of thick Vinca leaves. So I picked up the butterfly, which made no attempt to fly and permitted me to carry it into the back of the garden far from the scene of the crime. I noticed a small tear in one of his wings.
            I decided to set the butterfly down on top of a thick stalk of another plant (a tall phlox) and hope that he could recover unmolested there. Or not. I am not really god of the garden insects.
            A few hours later when I went out to check on him the butterfly was gone. I took this absence as a favorable sign.
            I will conclude with some lines from the poem I wrote about another episode, when I caught two praying mantises in flagrante on that same bush. (Apparently; who really knows? I mean, they're insects.)

            Too big for squeamish hands to touch
too raw for greenleaf thoughts of preservation
too distinguished in its regicidal enormity to ignore
though its body swims metamorphically into the green and brown
of everyman's little spot of paradise

serpentine in her motions
she knows what we don't care to hear
let the gods, the elohim, keep track of the billion teeming souls
I step aside, indulge a somewhat less sullied patch of sun...

            That is to say I let nature take its course.
            Looking for a scientific perspective on this behavior, I discovered a report on a widely observed practice by some insects and insect-like predators:That is, the females eat the males after copulation.
            In this report to which I have attached the subtitle "Good news for guys," one Kyle Hurley, an entomology student from the University of Central Arkansas, concluded that females do not in fact always, or even generally, eat their mates after coupling. The truth is more varied. In one case, I learned, the male actually ate the female; in another case the female ate the head of the male during the act, though this did not prevent the act's completion. The truer generalization, according to this study, is that female mantises “were selectively cannibalizing smaller males.”
            To which I can offer this advice to prospective male praying mantis progenitors: if you're a runt, you're lunch.