by Brandon Eckerd
There is this common belief that it is illegal to kill a praying mantis. In actuality, there has never been any form of legislation to support this claim. This bit of information has changed the view of praying mantises; after all, if they are illegal to kill, they must have some sort of value to the environment or be endangered, right? What most people probably don’t know is that the most common praying mantis here in Pennsylvania, Tenodera sinensis, is an introduced species from China. These Chinese mantises were introduced in the late 19th century to control the population of pests in gardens. Since then, they have spread across the country. It is impossible to quantify the kind of effect this voracious predator has had on native populations of arthropods.
Typically, I am a firm believer that we shouldn’t take animals from the wild as pets largely because doing so has a negative impact on the wild population. In this case of the Chinese mantis, who reproduces prolifically and preys upon smaller, native mantis species, it seemed appropriate to make an exception. I had to collect insects for entomology, and when I came upon two mantises, I thought it would be more interesting to observe them for a while before adding them to my collection.
Mantises are very observant. They would follow me, heads turning robotically as I moved around in their enclosure. They readily accepted food from tongs, although on more than one occasion they mistook the tongs for the food. What impressed me the most was their tenacity. As they got older, their legs got weaker. It was harder for them to grip surfaces compared to when they were young. Despite this, every night the one mantis would climb to the top of the cage, fall down and then climb back up again. She would repeat this until she found a comfortable position. I eventually made her a ladder to help her climb, but a few weeks later even that wasn’t enough. When she was so old she could barely move her legs and she no longer could see the food I was presenting her, I knew her time was up and I added her to my collection.
Entomology is a fascinating class, but it can be pretty difficult at times. The material is tough, for sure, but collecting insects means having to kill them for preservation. It was tough when I had to preserve those mantises I had cared for and had so observantly interacted with me. I gained a new appreciation for Mantodea through keeping those mantises, and look forward to seeing more of them come summertime.