Prairie Tayles: Praying Mantis Should Be Renamed Preying Mantis

Sep 29, 2017

Despite the hot temperatures that scorched yards and fields up until a few days ago, autumn is in the air. One reason for that involves behaviors of birds and insects. 

While more bees hover over late-blooming plants to gather end of season nectar, cicadas sing louder each evening, trying to squeeze out last notes. Cricket choruses are also more evident inside and outside the house. Vultures gather in ever-larger groups to prepare for autumn journeys south. Birds we normally don’t see in this region wing through. One of those migrating species is the humming bird. Those with feeders see these guys in action just before they head for southern lands.

While mountain residents enjoy hummers all summer long, Western Kansans enjoy a short visit sometimes in the spring and often in the fall as the tiny birds make their way to and from nesting territory. I’ve maintained a feeder all season in hopes I’d see these little migrants. Changing that nectar finally paid off. Two or three iridescent green tornadoes drained the feeder fluid levels during the past few days.

The first day I saw my flitting visitors, I also noted a praying mantis. It posed solemnly along the edge of the clear container full of sweetened water that I offered to lure in long awaited guests. If I hadn’t seen a photo on the internet showing how these large, Martian-looking bugs kill and eat hummingbirds, I wouldn’t have given its presence a second thought. However, I’d read the headlines even though I hadn’t viewed the gruesome photos. I also observed the visiting hummingbird hesitating before it approached the plastic flowers at the base of the bottle.

Time for Grandma to intervene. A thunk of a broom handle sent that brown, 5-inch long predator tumbling to the ground, scurrying for cover. I added a few whacks with the bristle end of my weapon to make sure he didn’t want to set up camp again on my hummingbird feeder.

Normally, I encourage these garden sentries who protect veggies from damaging insects. Just looking at that triangular head with those strong jaws lets you know this guy means business when it comes to devouring prey. A close look at its legs to see how the mantis uses them to spear or confine its dinner reveals sophisticated abilities to disable victims. This is one powerful insect. It’s understandable why a tribe in Africa deified such a critter.

According to the internet site where I first saw these common garden protectors threatening hummingbirds, the mantis waits patiently for the hummer to come close. The insect then spears the small bird with a powerful foreleg. After killing the hummer, it dines on its soft belly side. Someone videotaped this predator vs. prey incident and posted it on YouTube. I couldn’t bear to watch the entire video, but I saw enough to know I wanted that big, ol’, ugly bug back in the cabbage patch.

Over decades, I’ve learned autumn is the time of year when I’ll see insects, birds, and animals most focused on their own survival. They don’t have long to store ample reserves to make it through winter’s dark, cold months. Despite knowing this, I declared hummingbirds are off limits. Their visits are too infrequent to allow a predator make them into a meal.