The long-awaited mantis update

Chinese praying mantis on day lilyPosting is still slow – I’m finding a lot of my time taken up with other things, boring things from a blogging perspective – but I’m trying to keep up with images at the same time. There will be another post featuring various arthropods coming shortly, but for now I’m going to focus on just one.

One of the many mantises that had inhabited the Japanese maple has now switched to the front flower garden not far away, and stalks the daylilies (genus Hemerocallis.) When we first moved here, the maple was crawling with mantids, but most of them have moved on or simply disappeared, while the one seen here is an established resident, spotted pretty much daily. The change in size is, as always, fascinating to watch, especially when you’ve seen how tiny they are when first hatched.

I was on the phone with a friend and, as usual, wandering all over the place while talking – I’m a great fan of my hands-free headset, though the neighbors often don’t spot it and think I’m strange, but I am, so no biggie I guess. Anyway, during the conversation I spotted my resident chowing down on a recently-caught meal, and had to go inside and get the camera rig. Yes, I still do nature photography while speaking on the phone, and my friends are used to this, even though it occasionally involves strange grunts and truncated sentences. I’m probably one of those taxing acquaintances. Are there a lot of people who chat on the phone at 10:40 pm while lying with their head in the front garden, shooting almost vertically at a mantis eating a roach? I bet the numbers would surprise you…
Chinese mantis eating cockroach
By the way, while most people associate roaches with bad living conditions and all that, there are actually quite a few species, and the wood roach (genus Parcoblatta) is fairly common in many areas of North Carolina. They’re not a pest and don’t reproduce in the home, but they make great meals for nocturnal insectivores like mantises. My subject here, in fact, was growing so noticeably larger that I knew it was due for a molt, but I wasn’t watching close enough, and only caught the aftermath a few days after I photographed it with its meal. Since this was captured during the day, the mantis is not displaying the dark eyes that it had with the night shots above.
Chinese mantis with newly-molted exoskeleton
As always, following a molt they appear significantly larger, and today my subject measured 60mm (2.5 in) in length, quite an increase from the 10mm measured a few days after hatching, and still only half as long as the reproducing adult stage will be.

Chinese mantis drinking dew from leafWe’ve been a little sparse on rain during a heatwave, so I was watering the plants and, getting close to the mantis’ stalking grounds, I switched the sprayer to the ‘mist’ setting. Once again, this was greatly appreciated, and the mantis immediately began drinking up what it could from the leaves. I was slightly unprepared here, in that the strobe batteries were weak and taking too long to recharge; this shot was slightly off in focus, and by the time I had replaced the batteries the mantis was no longer displaying this behavior – it was getting a little antsy with this strange creature looming overhead, bearing the bulky contraption that makes up my macro field rig. However, I wafted in another mist treatment, which gave me an opportunity for an even better display.

mist drops on mantis eyes
You can see the difference in light quality and focus depth here as I switched to using natural light without the flash, needing to use a larger aperture to keep the shutter speed high enough. You might think this much water is unnatural, but it occurs just like this on cool evenings, and the mantids can cope readily. Watching it in action was actually pretty damn cool.

Mantis clearing dew from eyesThe eyes, of course, are important, but so is the moisture when it’s dry, so the mantis made sure none of it was wasted. With a motion remarkably similar to a cat cleaning itself, the mantis swept its eyes clear with a foreleg, then drank the moisture collected on its leg. Switching to natural light was a major blessing here, in that I could fire off sequences of frames without worrying about strobe recharge times.

Will a praying mantis realize I’m behind this benefit, or remember my generosity? It’s safe to say, not a chance – about the best that might happen is it gets somewhat used to seeing the macro rig nearby without anything bad happening, and I find it a little easier to snag pics, though I can’t say I’ve seen any real evidence of this. Today I brought the calipers in close to try and get an accurate body length, and it really didn’t like that; it dove for deeper cover in a near-panic, though I was able to coax it back out and get the measurement – it was far less concerned about my fingers than the metallic shine of the calipers. Like many species, a lot of it depends on the actions themselves. Sudden movements, eclipsing the light, bearing down from above – these are all predatory behavior, regardless of the shape or appearance of the offending object.

I remember reading a study, many years ago, where a frog was tested in response to certain stimuli. A cricket model, very realistic, that simply sat still didn’t garner any attention from the frog, but a wood block, moved in the same manner that a cricket does, provoked strikes from the frog. Since then, I’ve observed numerous different species, and the pattern holds up surprisingly well; overall, it’s the actions, not the appearance, that most often provokes a response, defensive or complacent.

Maybe someday I’ll sit down with a bit of thread or wire and some little innocuous object, and see if I can provoke a strike from a mantis by making it move like a tasty bug. It might be interesting to see what details the mantis pays the most attention to.

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