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This Week’s Creature Feature ... Praying Mantis

Good for the garden and for myth making

Masters of disguise, praying mantises camouflage themselves to capture beetles, bees, spiders, lizards and even frogs, then dine on the prey head-first.
    Mantises don’t hunt their prey. Instead, they wait unmoving and invisible on a leaf or twig, ready to seize any insect or amphibian unfortunate enough to cross paths.
    Turning their triangular heads up to 180 degrees in search of an insect, mantises are efficient and deadly predators. Excellent eyesight — up to 60 feet — helps mantises capture their next meal.
    Over 1,500 species live worldwide. About 20 native mantises live in the United States.
    In my garden, I have one; I’m pretty certain because he’s missing a leg. His perch is a tall banana tree, where we watch him, fascinated by his alien face and humble, prayerful posture. Saying grace before eating seems to be part of the ritual as the mantis folds its legs beneath its chin.
    The mantis seems to watch us, too, turning its head to follow our voices.
    It’s easy to see why the praying mantis is a subject of legends.
    In African folklore, mantis is a Bushman who could dream solutions to problems.
    In Muslim cultures, praying mantises are believed to point to Mecca.
    French folklore holds that a mantis can guide a lost child home, while the Chinese roast praying mantis eggs and serve them to children to treat bedwetting.
    After mating, females devour their male partner if he isn’t fast enough and if she’s hungry enough, which is the case in about a third of mantis courtships. As I said, I have only one.