Late last summer, it seemed like we were getting the same phone call every day: “I’ve found a praying mantis, what should I do with it?”
Last summer certainly seemed like a boom year for mantids, considering how many sighting reports we heard, and folks are often curious how to care for them or help children care for them if they should catch one. So for this edition of Notes from the Lab, I present: Bug Wrangler Brenna’s Mantis Care Guide.
Like all insects, mantids begin their life as an egg. The adult female will lay several hundred at a time, all encased in a special egg case called an ootheca. Ootheca can be purchased at most garden supply centers, and are usually one of two species: Tenodera sinensis, the Chinese mantis, or Mantis religiosa, the European mantis. As their name suggests, they are not native to the United States, but have been introduced to maintain populations of garden pests. Most adult mantids you find in the wild are these species, though we do have a couple native species in central/east Montana.
If you choose to purchase an ootheca from a garden supplier and want to raise the young, be forewarned: you may soon have hundreds of babies on your hands. They are small, fast, delicate and chances are, they’ll eat each other in the same container. Which, if you don’t want to care for hundreds of teeny mantis babies, is probably for the better.
Mantids eat. Every. Day. As young, they will feast on fruit flies, and will progress to larger prey as they get older. They can typically handle food that is twice the size of their head, and seem to prefer catching flying insects (housefly problem solved).
Raising mantids from hatchlings can be very rewarding, but it is a delicate hobby that requires patience and dextrous hands. Most folks who purchase mantis oothecae will leave them in their garden to hatch in the spring, and soon reap the benefits of having a small mantid army patrolling their flower beds.
So what if you happen to capture an adult?
One of my favorite mantis-related phone calls last summer was a father asking for advice on whether or not he should let his kids keep a mantis they caught in their yard. They had never had a pet before, and he was wondering if it would be a good first-time caregiving endeavor. My answer? Of course!
Adult mantids are easy to care for and don’t live very long, so they don’t require a huge commitment. For their cage setup, you want to make sure the enclosure is 3x their size in height, and 2x their size in width. This is in case the mantis still has a few molts left; they molt hanging upside down, and if the enclosure is too small, they can suffer as a result. Not sure if your mantis is an adult or not? Easy: Adults have wings, juveniles and sub-adults do not. Mantids, like all winged insects, will not molt again once they’ve reached adulthood.
Mantids spend a lot of time hanging upside down, so be sure to provide structures like sticks and leaves: I enjoy making enclosures look as close to their natural habitat as I can, but as long as they have food, water, and a place to hang out, they’ll be happy.
Mantids will get most of the water they need from their prey items (remember: they are voracious eaters and need to eat every day) but be sure to provide a light misting every day as well. Thirsty mantids will readily drink the water droplets, and it’s very fun to watch.
Remember that the mantis lifecycle is short: Adults will lay eggs in the summer and die off shortly thereafter. The eggs overwinter in their ootheca and then hatch in the spring.
If you have any more questions about mantis care, don’t hesitate to reach out!