The Praying Mantis: Friend or Foe?

Christine Schoene Maccabee

Have you ever seen a butterfly’s wings, mysteriously minus its body, on the ground beneath your favorite flowers? Did you ever wonder how and why they got there? The answer to this mystery is a very unexpected one—at least it was for me. It is more than likely the work of a praying mantis (or “preying” mantis as I call them), that seem to prefer the soft buttery bodies of our precious swallowtails and monarchs, not to mention invaluable bees.

The first time I saw a butterfly in the clutches of a mantis, I was shocked. Within seconds he/she ate the entire body from top to bottom, allowing the wings to float gently to the ground. From that moment on, I realized that I could not tolerate mantis in my flower gardens, which I had begun as habitat for bees and butterflies. I also witnessed a mantis nonchalantly eating a honey bee one day; not a pleasant sight either, as honey bees are becoming more rare lately. 

I know there are a lot of mantis lovers out there. Years ago, I lost a potential boyfriend because of our difference in opinion about them, though he did not give me a chance to plead my case (his loss). So, before I make any enemies in my readership, here are a few facts that you may not know.

There are three types of mantis in our country. One is a native, and the others were brought here—mostly accidentally—from Europe and China (the Chinese one is found mostly in Maryland and Delaware). There is actually an overpopulation of mantis in our country due to this problem. Also, according to the artist-naturalist John Quinn, who has written nine books on nature and science, a rumor was started back in the 1940s that one could be fined $50.00 if caught squashing a mantis. Mr. Quinn suggests that how this  myth got started and continued on for so long “is a mystery even to folklorists.” So feel free to reduce your mantis population, as you will not be fined, and they have few predators. Smaller birds tend to avoid trying to eat them due to the painful pinching of their strong forelegs. I rest my case…

Like most well-meaning people, I thought the mantis was an important insect to have in my gardens to control garden pests. Thus, when I moved out here twenty-six years ago, I went out of my way to save mantis egg cases before the field was mowed in the fall; I positioned those egg cases in various parts of the vegetable garden and berry bushes. Sadly, I discovered the next year that the mantis is all too frequently foe rather than friend. That summer, I found about fifty pairs of wings under the butterfly bush and other flowers. Also, rather than eating the bean beetles on my pole beans where I would transport any mantis I found, they would fly back over to the butterfly bush and begin stalking butterflies again. At that point I knew I had to take drastic action. I knew the war was on!

Let me say that I would never advocate killing praying mantis, but I thought I would share some information with you that you may find useful in your pursuit of “mantis management.” Most people are not open to ridding their gardens of the “fascinating” mantis, but why invite butterflies and bees into your beautiful gardens if it is only a death trap? For me, a choice had be made, and so I made mine.

I have a “largish” plastic container with a lid and a handle, so when I see a mantis I simply knock it into the container. Sometimes I might have several in there before the day is through. If I happen to have garden gloves, I will also grab one by hand. Then, I either throw them into the chickens to eat (a great source of protein for chickens) or take them down the road that night or the next day and drop them off in a wooded area. I also have no qualms about putting their egg cases under foot in the fall and winter as a means of control. So, there are many ways to control them, though there will always be more than enough of them—native and non-native—living out in the wild areas…just not in my butterfly gardens!

The human gardener, out of necessity, will usually intervene in order to have the desired results. We are as much a part of nature as all the other creatures on this earth. Sometimes it can feel like an eat or be eaten life we live, kill or be killed. If it isn’t a rabbit destroying your kale and cabbage (remember the story of Peter Rabbit?) or the beetles ruining your squash and green beans, then it is the mantis eating your bees and butterflies. The ways of nature, though fascinating, are as confounding as they are frustrating. We could therefore spend all of our time controlling, and spend no time simply appreciating.

So, I do what I can, and then let the rest go. I will try every day to sit on my deck and enjoy the indigo bunting in my old cherry tree, be thrilled when I see my first yellow or black swallowtail, and rejoice when I spot an endangered blue butterfly.  However, I will be quick as anything to grab my mantis catcher container if I see a “preying” mantis laying in wait on the branch of my butterfly bush or silently stalking anything that moves among the lilies and sweet peas.

Then I can go back to enjoying the beauty and mystery all around me, knowing that I have done my little part in the scheme of things, and relax in the reality of my inability to control everything.          Enjoy creation!

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