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Mantis Mama


Mantis Mama: Welcome to the Meadow
By Michelle Brannon, naturalist, Riverbend Park

This is the fifth and final installment of the semi-regular blog series “Mantis Mama” following the lives of baby Carolina Mantises and the Naturalist who cares for them.
Read the fourth installment here.
Read the third installment here.
Read the second installment here.
Read the first installment here.

Spring has (finally) leveled out. We seem to be through the frosts, and that means the day has finally arrived: release day.

Now, I know a lot of you have been waiting for this day for a long time, and I apologize for that. The important thing has always been making sure the conditions were optimal for the survival of our mantis babies. I’m happy to announce they are now happily hunting in our meadow here at Riverbend Park.

Why did I pick the meadow for our (not so) little ones to live? It’s true that praying mantises can be found all over the place. I’ve found them in trees, in meadows, on bushes, on buildings, and even on my car. First, I had to evaluate their colors. Mantises can change their color slightly by the temperature and the colors surrounding them, and I wanted to give our babies a good chance at hiding in their new home. As most of ours are brown and green, I selected our meadow. Riverbend’s meadow used to be farm land and is overlooked by our corn crib at the top of the hill. The once fertile farm land is now covered in a variety of tall grasses, small shrubs and even some tomato vines. Here’s a picture of the meadow that shows some of the different colors:

Molting mantis
mantis blog
The Meadow in early spring is still very brown with patches of green.
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A mantis ootheca that has already hatched. We found lots of these, showing this is a prime place for mantises to live and grow.

By living in an environment that is full of the same colors as their bodies, praying mantises have a stronger chance of hiding from predators using camouflage. Camouflage is when animals use colors and patterns to mimic their surroundings and hide in plain sight! It allows them to hide from predators as well as to sneak up on their prey.

Our little ones won’t be lonely out there! Other animals live in the meadow, too. Besides other mantises, there are crickets, snakes, deer, mosquitoes, bees, ladybugs, beetles, butterflies and more! They won’t be top of the food chain out there, though. Birds like this curious tree swallow will happily eat one up if they’re not careful:

mantis blog
These tree swallows have taken over some of the bluebird boxes.
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Small insects like this ladybug are great prey for mantises.
mantis blog
This caterpillar is curling up into his cocoon. He'll turn into a butterfly or moth when he emerges.

To protect the mantises as they get adapted to their new home, I’ve placed them near a large rose bush where it would be hard for predators to get to them. Unfortunately, as soon as I opened their cages, they scampered into the middle of the bush, preventing me from getting any great pictures of them in their new home. Luckily, our staff here at Riverbend took a number of pictures with their phones before being released. Check them out below (sorry for the quality! These guys were very curious and our phones can only do so much)!

 

mantis blog  mantis blog  mantis blog  mantis blog


Taking care of these little ones and raising them for this blog has been an awesome experience for me, and I hope you all enjoyed their adventure as well. What started out as 25 babies has ended as six fully grown mantises that were released into the wild. Would this number have been different if left to their own devices? Most definitely, though it is impossible to tell if the number would have been a higher or a lower survival rate.

My goal of this series was to get you interested in insects, and to hopefully encourage you to go on an insect safari of your own. All you need is a bug net and a nice day! A great project is to make a scrapbook of the insects you catch. Just take a picture before letting them go!

From all of us at Riverbend, thank you for following the journey of our mantises! We hope to see you this summer!

 As always, it is not recommended that readers take mantises or their ootheca from the wild. However, many garden centers sell native species that can be raised and legally released into gardens. Check local laws before collecting, purchasing or releasing any insects.

 

Mantis Mama: This is It
Michelle Brannon
Naturalist, Riverbend Park

This is the fourth installment of the semi-regular blog series “Mantis Mama” following the lives of baby Carolina Mantises and the Naturalist who cares for them.
Read the third installment here.
Read the second installment here.
Read the first installment here.

Hello again, everyone! I apologize for my long silence, but the mantises have been busy growing, and I have been busy keeping up with them! To make up for my long absence, I promise you some pictures. But you know, for insects that have had a camera lens in their face quite literally since they were born, they can be very camera shy.  Apparently some things never change as you grow up. They’re big enough now that I’ve had all of them officially move over to small crickets, which means we have reached the stage that I like to call the teenage years.

Like human teenagers, mantis juveniles go through a number of changes. Their growing tends to slow down, they eat LOADS of food, and they can sometimes have attitudes. Luckily, the few of ours that have attitude problems just refuse to sit still long enough for photographs, and sometimes try to sneak out the top of the cage for their own little rebellious adventure. Don’t worry, they don’t get into too much trouble. I’ve got a quick eye and can catch them in the act, like this little one trying to sneak out while I’m filling the misting bottle.

Escape Artist

The praying mantis remains a juvenile until its final molt, where it grows its wings. At that stage, they are fully grown and are sexually mature. Our babies are currently getting close to their final stages, and if you look closely at them, you may be able to see their tiny wing buds beginning to grow.

Molting can be a very hard time for a mantis. The mantis stops eating for a few days before so the outer skin (their exoskeleton) is loose. When the time is right, they hang upside down on a branch or leaf and push themselves out the top of their old exoskeleton. The mantis has a brand new exoskeleton, but it is very soft, so they must wait for it to air dry before moving too far. If they lose their grip on the branch and fall, they can be permanently damaged and most likely die. As soon as their new exoskeleton hardens, they’re able to continue life as usual, hunting and enjoying the sunshine.

I made sure to give our little ones plenty of places to molt by adding sticks and leafy branches to the enclosure, and boy has it paid off! Check out some of the neat molting pictures I’ve gotten!

Molting mantis  Molting mantis  Molting mantis
 Molting mantis
 Molting mantis  Molting mantis

But what happens next? What happens when they’re fully grown? Well, I finally have an answer for you. We were debating keeping a couple of the babies as part of our exhibit animal collection, but from the feisty way these little ones jump on their food, we have decided they will do very well in the wild. Over the next few weeks, I will be changing how I feed the mantises. I will no longer be hand feeding each mantis a cricket (I wanted to make sure everyone got one!), but will be dropping in enough crickets and allowing them to hunt for their meal. I will continue to keep an eye on them and hopefully their hunting instincts will remain strong so they can be released.

As always, it is not recommended that readers take mantises or their ootheca from the wild. However, many garden centers sell native species that can be raised and legally released into gardens. Check local laws before collecting, purchasing or releasing any insects.

Mantis Mama: Picky Little Things
Written by: Michelle Brannon
Naturalist, Riverbend Park

This is the third installment of the semi-regular blog series “Mantis Mama” following the lives of baby Carolina Mantises and the Naturalist who cares for them.
Read the second installment here.
Read the first installment here.

It’s been two months since the ootheca hatched, and I’ve come to one big conclusion: Mantises are picky little creatures.

I've been having problems getting these little ones to switch from fruit flies to crickets, so there are unfortunately no pictures of them eating...yet. Patience, friends. There are pictures included with this post as well!

A wonderfully important topic came up while discussing what these little ones eat. We know they eat insects, and pretty much anything they can hold onto (have you seen the pictures and videos of mantises attacking hummingbirds? They're fascinating!), but when we keep a supply of "feeder insects" on hand to feed our pets, it's important to make sure they are eating properly, too.

baby mantis  baby mantis
baby mantis  baby mantis

When an animal, such as our babies, eats another, it is absorbing nutrition from that animal. If the prey is malnourished, the predator is going to gain fewer nutritional benefits from eating that animal. For this reason, it is important to keep both the mantises and their prey on a healthy diet. This means varying their food and filling our feeder insects with things like dark leafy greens, potatoes, and squashes.

This exchange of energy happens through what people like to call the food chain. The shorter the food chain is, the greater the benefits to each individual.

Knowing this, I'm finding my little ones to be beyond stubborn. They seem to be obsessed with fruit flies and aren't interested in the crickets at all. I have a feeling things will change as they get a little bit bigger, but as always, we have to watch out so the mantises don't start eating each other. Until then, I will continue to offer them fruit flies to their hearts’ content.

For now, enjoy these pictures of our little ones. They're sure growing fast!

As always, it is not recommended that readers take mantises or their ootheca from the wild. However, many garden centers sell native species that can be raised and legally released into gardens. Check local laws before collecting, purchasing or releasing any insects.

Mantis Mama: The Three Week Mark
Written by: Michelle Brannon
Naturalist, Riverbend Park

This is the second installment of the semi-regular blog series “Mantis Mama” following the lives of baby Carolina Mantises and the Naturalist who cares for them. Read the first installment here.

Fast forward three weeks. There has definitely been a series of trial and error with these little guys. At one point I had so many I was losing count! Unfortunately, nature has led its course and we have much more controlled numbers now.

What happened? Praying mantises lay hundreds of eggs in one ootheca because the end result will only be a few that make it to adulthood. Out of the mantises that hatch, maybe half will get through their first molt, and from there maybe half of those will grow to adulthood. Praying mantises are a favorite prey item for animals like birds and other insects (even other praying mantises!), and they are very fragile when it comes to temperature and humidity and molting. Many of our babies did not make it through their first molt, due most likely to defects when they were born preventing them from sitting upright (more than one had this issue), and humidity levels that were too low when they went to molt. Others just were not adept at capturing prey. Only the strongest survive in the animal world, I’m afraid.

The important thing is to focus on the present, and the present has pictures! Here are some of my favorite shots of the babies so far.

baby mantis  baby mantis  baby mantis
baby mantis  baby mantis  baby mantis

They are still happily eating their fruit flies and wait for them every morning. I added some features to their cage. I’ve wrapped the sides in clear plastic wrap to try and raise the humidity while leaving some space for air flow. I’ve also added a strip of fabric across the top of the tank to give the babies something to hang onto better than the smooth plastic lid. If temperatures keep dropping, however, they will be moved to another room in the house. I fear that may have a lot to do with the decreased numbers lately.

At the moment, it’s too hard to get a good picture of them eating, but I’m hoping to do that as soon as they get big enough for small crickets!

As always, it is not recommended that readers take mantises or their ootheca from the wild. However, many garden centers sell native species that can be raised and legally released into gardens. Check local laws before collecting, purchasing or releasing any insects.

Mantis Mama: The Beginning
Written by: Michelle Brannon
Naturalist, Riverbend Park

Cora the Praying Mantis: click to enlargeIn the last few days of October, as a school group was arriving, my coworker and I came across a gorgeous Carolina Mantis just outside the doors to the Visitors Center at Riverbend Park. It wasn’t a particularly warm day in October, but we were delighted to see the insect and happily showed her to the children before beginning our program. After taking a few quick pictures (she was quite pretty!), we released her back onto a nearby bush and continued with our day.

A few hours later, she was found again, this time trying to sneak into the building through our back door! We compared pictures and it was indeed the same insect we had found that morning. As we had an insect program coming up in the next few days, we decided to hold onto her for a few days before releasing her again.

We decided to name her Cora, and I took charge of her care. She was great at eating the crickets I offered her, and would even crawl over willing visitors’ hands when they stopped by. It was quite cold at that point, and with her being such a hit at the program and at the desk, we agreed to hold onto her until it had warmed up.

As Carolina Mantises don’t live much more than a year, we weren’t surprised to find she didn’t last longer than two weeks with us. However, she did leave us something special: an egg case containing hundreds of baby praying mantis babies!

The egg case of praying mantises is called an ootheca. You can often find them attached to fence boards, branches, leaves, and even sometimes on the sides of houses! Ootheca can survive the winter and will hatch during the spring if left outside.

Mantis Ootheca: click to enlarge

As the ootheca was laid on the lid of one of our temporary transport containers, we needed to transfer it to another container; one that would keep the babies inside when it hatched, and one that wasn’t needed for programs or other animals. We had been considering creating a mantis exhibit with the babies, but we had to get there first. Shouldn’t count your mantises before they hatch, you know.

The solution was found when I found a small aquarium at home. I sewed a scrap of fabric around the lid and glued the ootheca to the fabric. Over the next few months, I kept the aquarium next to my turtle’s heat lamp and a damp paper towel in the bottom, providing both the heat and humidity it required to hatch.

Fast forward to an early morning in January at 12:02am. Things were normal, and I was getting ready for bed when I remembered to check the paper towel and make sure it was still wet. It tended to dry out after a few days, and this time was no exception. However, there was a surprise waiting for me. Two little baby mantises, barely the size of my fingernail, were skittering around in the bottom of the tank! I was so excited! I quickly set up my permanent netted cage with a soaked paper towel on the bottom and moved the hatchlings to their new home.

Ideally, I would leave the babies in the small aquarium until their second instar (after they’ve molted once) because the netted cage is so large. However, I was not fully prepared and found myself without food for the little ones. Instead of running the risk of them eating each other, I moved them to a larger space, hoping they wouldn’t encounter each other in the night and there would still be two in the morning.

I stayed next to the small tank, watching with baited breath for more to hatch. After an hour, I gave in and headed to bed, the total count still at two. Too excited to sleep, I began reading more about rearing baby mantises, happy to find I was following the correct path.

I was just so excited! I started to wonder if this was what new parents felt like: so excited they can’t sleep, and all they want to do is watch the little ones all the time?

It was at this point that I had realized I’d turned a corner: I was a Mantis Mama. My friend teasingly asked if I was going to have a mantis family on the back of my car. Ten minutes later, I had found mantis car decals online that came in various sizes and colors. She said I was crazy. I said I was passionate.

With fingers crossed, I went to sleep, hoping that when I awoke there would be more.

Mantis Mama blog will be a semi-regular post as the baby mantises develop, discussing the life cycle, growth rate, diet and characteristics of the Carolina Mantis, as well as the reactions and experiences of the naturalist who cares for them. It is not recommended that readers take mantises or their ootheca from the wild. However, many garden centers sell native species that can be raised and legally released into gardens. Check local laws before collecting, purchasing or releasing any insects.


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