Summary: One of the most fascinating insects native to North America is the praying mantis. The praying mantis is a green or brown insect that uses camouflage and spiked, grasping forearms to capture prey.
The praying mantis may have a head shaped like a heart, but it is heartless when it comes to how the female treats her mate. Female praying mantises will often eat the male after they mate. The reasons for this are debatable, but some researchers believe it increases the chances for successful reproduction.
In addition to dining on other mantises, praying mantises will eat many other insects like flies, aphids, and beetles. Large mantises have also been known to capture small frogs, mice, and hummingbirds.
Mantises use camouflage to ambush their victims and to hide from other predators. Many mantises are green or brown so they can blend in with leaves, sticks, or other plant matter. Mantises can change their coloration after they molt, so some mantises in Australia and Africa will turn black after a forest fire so they can continue to match their surroundings. Other mantises living in tropical climates can have lighter colors. The tropical flower mantis is sometimes pink so it will resemble a flower. This deception can be so effective that insects or a hummingbird will sometimes land on the mantis thinking that it is a flower. That is likely the last mistake the insect or bird will ever make.
The mantis has powerful, spiked forelegs that it uses to grasp its prey. Its front legs are bent down as if folded in prayer. This is not the only reason that mantises have become associated with religion. The patience of a mantis is notorious. It can be still for very long periods while it waits for prey, looking like it is in meditation. Interestingly, the name mantis comes from the Greek word for soothsayer, yet another reference to the spirituality of this insect.
Mantises are usually considered beneficial insects in gardens because they prey on insects like Japanese beetles that feed on plants like roses. The European mantis, Carolina Mantis, and Chinese Mantis are commonly found in US backyards. They range in size from under a half inch to over six inches long. When threatened, a mantis will stand up on its back legs and spread its forearms and its wings, so it appears larger to its potential predator. This menacing posture is not just an act. Mantises can back up their threat with a painful bite. They are not great fliers, but they have excellent vision. They can swivel their head all the way around without moving the rest of their body. This helps them to see in all directions.
If you have mantises in your garden, consider yourself lucky. They might look like prehistoric nightmares, but they are too small to be of any danger to a human being and they are not poisonous. The only consideration you might want to make is to keep bird feeders away from plant materials where the mantises might be hiding. This will protect unsuspecting hummingbirds and keep the mantises focused on killing bugs that are harmful to your garden plants.