On a wing and a prayer

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One of the most widely held beliefs surrounding the praying mantis is the female's habit of ripping her mates head off after copulation, but there is more to the praying mantis than extremely poor bedside manners. Even this rumour is not entirely true.

In captivity, the female is known to decapitate the male after he has outlived his usefulness about 90% of the time, but it appears that in nature the males have developed ways to avoid this, escaping this unpleasant fate in 7 out of 10 instances.

The female mantis lays hundreds of eggs at a time, which she covers with a tough layer called an ootheca. This Styrofoam-like substance protects the eggs and newborn mantids, as bats, birds, frogs, spiders, fish and aquatic insects find the larvae and pupae particularly tasty.

Some garden centres collect the oothecae of the praying mantis and sell them as a form of natural insecticide, for when the youngsters hatch, they soon grow into voracious predators. Praying mantids will eat anything small enough to catch and kill, but big enough to attract their attention. Unfortunately, this is not always to the benefit of the gardener, as the mantis will just as easily prey on beneficial insects, like bees, as undesirable ones such as caterpillars.

Praying mantids rely on camouflage to conceal themselves from both predator and prey and are masters of disguise. They are also the only insect that can turn its head a full 180 degrees, a useful tool whether they are hiding or hunting. Although mantids appear very similar to stick insects, they are more closely related to cockroaches and termites.

Mantids rely mainly on ultrasound for hunting and defence as they have only one ear, located under their belly in front of their hind legs, and their eyesight, although binocular, is not very efficient. Their razor sharp front claws can be employed with lightning speed and precision, to capture any insect within their reach.

When not in use as a weapon, the front legs are usually folded in front of them in an attitude of prayer, which gives them their name – the word mantis comes from the Greek 'mantikos' meaning prophet or soothsayer. Our own Khoisan people regard the mantis as godly, hence the Afrikaans term for the insect – hottentotsgod (god of the hottentots/khoi).

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Monday, 18 November 2019