Praying mantises advance on Anza

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A praying mantis hunts in a garden in Anza. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

Stealthy hunters are coming out in droves in the gardens and orchards of the Anza Valley. Praying mantises are stalking their insect prey while helping to control pests on vegetables and fruit.

Stagmomantis californica, the common California mantis, is native to the western United States. This species is most often observed, but there are also three other types living in the region – European, Chinese and Mediterranean mantises.

Some species of praying mantises are used as pest control in California. They have also been kept as pets. However, the California mantis is native to the state.

The praying mantis is a merciless hunter. They prey – not pray – on other insects, small birds and reptiles, invertebrates, amphibians and even other mantises. These creatures are famous for being cannibalistic.

Mantids can consume prey twice their size and can often be observed munching happily away at an insect much larger than themselves.

Their forelegs are raptor-like and are used to grasp and manipulate prey. The reference to “praying” comes from the shape of their forelegs, which when at rest, appear like the insect is praying.

Praying mantises come in a variety of colors, from gray, to tan, to blue-green and a medium pale green to lime green. Their coloration helps them hide from their victims, as well as predators such as birds.

The carnivorous nature of these insects is what created a demand with farmers and gardeners for mantises. They can be commercially purchased in large quantities and used as nature’s pest control. For decades, they have helped farmers control crop-eating pests naturally.

But their meals can include beneficial insects such as butterflies and bees. Mantises have even been known to catch hummingbirds. Their benefits, however, outweigh their drawbacks as eaters of pests.

Praying mantises reproduce by laying eggs. After mating, the female lays egg cases that are cemented to a stem or leaf, and at times, fence posts and walls.

The egg case contains about 100 to 200 eggs that hatch into nymphets. They have no larval stage and look just like tiny adults. They grow rapidly, along with their appetite while they hunt and eat voraciously.

The late summer and fall are prime times to spot adult praying mantises as they creep about, silently looking for their next meal.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at dsieker@reedermedia.com.