They say that dog is man’s best friend, and as a dog lover I have to agree. But who is a gardener’s best friend? What companion do we have that can truly appreciate our gardens nearly as much as we do? Sure, our friends love the shared bounty that comes every year at harvest time, but they aren’t there while we spend countless hours making it all happen. Nearly every gardener has a garden buddy, but many don’t even know it. He might be over by the shed where you keep the shovel, or hanging out in the fruit tree. He might even be sitting in the tomato plant you are pruning. He watches you and he watches over your garden.
There are few friendships you will develop with insects over your lifetime, but the praying mantis truly is a gardener’s best friend. Your garden buddy is content to sit and spend time with you while you work, waiting and watching. You might start to wonder what he could gain from this friendship. While you ponder this, a grasshopper lands on a nearby leaf and is instantly snatched and eaten by your garden buddy. As he enjoys his meal, it almost looks like he winked at you. It seems this relationship is mutually beneficial.
There are over 2,300 different types of Praying Mantis, with about 20 species living in North America. They have excellent vision and extraordinary reflexes. Praying Mantis will sit camouflaged and motionless for long periods of time ready to strike at any food that comes by. At rest, Mantids hold their spiny forearms together giving the appearance they are praying. In this posture they are capable of quickly striking prey and holding it in their powerful grip. They will eat nearly any insect they can catch, and have even been known to eat small birds, lizards, and rodents on rare occasion.
Tenodera sinensis are a common Mantis variety sold in the U.S. They are usually sold in an egg case (ootheca) containing a few hundred eggs. The egg case needs 2-8 weeks of warm weather to hatch. Several hundred tiny babies squirm their way out and drop from tiny threads. They appear thin and worm-like as they hatch, and within a few minutes they start to stretch their legs and crawl around. As babies, they will eat small insects like gnats and fruit flies, and as they get larger they will eat progressively larger food. The babies molt several times, growing larger each time. At their last molt, they get their wings and have functioning reproductive systems. The males seek out the females to breed, attracted by their pheromones. The female generally bites off the males head during mating, and then consumes his body – a good meal to help nourish her and her new eggs growing inside. In late summer the female lays her egg case, which comes out as a frothy secretion which soon hardens into a protective shell. The egg case will winter over until the next spring, when the process starts again.
Praying Mantis are often seen on front porches near lights, waiting for food to come within striking distance. It is nice to have a garden buddy sitting at the door waiting for you to come home. They can act quite friendly towards people, and will often crawl onto an outstretched hand. Many gardeners have enjoyed the company of their Praying Mantis buddy, and it can be very rewarding for both you and your Mantis. They help keep your plants free on unwanted bugs, and you have an unusual and wonderful creature to study and enjoy.
Nathan Jackson is the owner of Nature’s Control and Ladybug Indoor Gardens. You can send your specific bug questions to Nathan@naturescontrol.com. For more information, to request a catalog, or to find a local distributor, check out Naturescontrol.com or call 541.245.6033.