The gardener was bent over an outdoor chair with her iPhone. What could she be photographing, I wondered? Getting closer, I saw the long body and spindly legs of a pale green praying mantis clinging to a white cushion. I ran to get my good camera; this big bug is a favorite of mine and I didn’t want to miss the shot. In a few hours, the praying mantis disappeared from the patio.

This praying mantis (stagmomantis Californica) was a female with a swollen abdomen, full of eggs and the substance that will creates her egg case, called an ootheca. She will cover the eggs with a goo from special glands that dries quickly and hardens into the consistency of polystyrene. After being laid in the fall, the eggs overwinter. With a string of warm spring days, the tiny nymphs will hatch, as many as several hundred. Only a small percent will survive to become adults.

Two weeks later, the mantis returned. I was pleased and felt blessed by her visitation. She was clinging to a stucco column outside our door. Above her, under the capital of the column, she had just laid her modest egg case.

As a child, finding a praying mantis was a magical moment. They were part of a world full of wonder. I was in awe of their great size and otherworldly look. When you find a mantis, they don’t usually fly away but instead watch you closely with their bulbous eyes, agilely turning their triangular head to get the best view. If you are gentle, they will slowly crawl on your arm.

Praying mantises are visual hunters relying on excellent eyesight to ambush prey. Their primary eyes are unusually large, widely-spaced and compound. But they have three additional eyes on their forehead. The big globe-shaped eyes have what is called a pseudopupil, a black dot that appears to move. It is not an actual structure in the eye, but an effect of light being absorbed. But it looks like a pupil and gives you the deep sense, along with its unusual frontal face, that the mantis is looking straight at you!

Because of their insect eating capabilities, mantises are welcomed in most gardens  But they are indiscriminate eaters, happily consuming both what we would call beneficial as well as harmful bugs. Praying mantises are one of the most popular insect pets. But you must feed them live bugs only. They are more interested in prey than praying.

Praying mantises have a fearless attentiveness which makes them seem curious and intelligent. Perhaps this is why many ancient cultures believed mantises had mystical powers. “Mantis” in Greek means “prophet” or “seer.” They are associated with patience and wisdom. They also are symbols of stillness, silence and the benefits of meditation. To “follow mantis” means to follow your true nature or highest self. It has been said that to gaze into the eyes of a mantis is to see the presence of god. The praying mantis is also often depicted as a guide, to help you find home or your way along the spiritual journey.

The Praying Mantis

From whence arrived the praying mantis? 

From outer space, or lost Atlantis?
glimpse the grin, green metal mug 

at masks the pseudo-saintly bug, 

Orthopterous* also carnivorous,
And faintly whisper, Lord deliver us.

~ Ogden Nash
(*“Orthopterous” refers to an order of insects to which mantises belong.)

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