The Mantis and Me
On a sunny day in June, I heard my mother yelping loudly from the garage. I knew this instantly as a cry for help, involving an insect or arachnid. Had a bee flown into the house? Was a colony of ants exploring a shelving unit? When I reached her, I was stunned at the sight.
In a shaded corner near the garage door, where dust and leaves had accumulated, a mantid writhed in a thick, cotton-like web. From the coloration- a leafy, uneven and camouflaging brown, and size- approximately 6 inches, I assumed it was female. (This was not necessarily true, I’d learn later.) Her forelegs were wrapped tightly together and her abdomen had been spun several times over amid the gray death trap. Her head pivoted wildly as she jerked, fruitlessly, to free herself.
My heart broke at the sight. As a naturalist, I’m ordinarily contented allowing nature to follow her course, intentionally interceding minimally. The harsh natural landscape consists of predators and prey, and our sentimental human values are infrequently doubled in nonhuman life. This mantid had fallen (or flown or walked) into a well-laid snare by an assuredly large and hungry spider. She may have been trying to eat the spider, the spider’s eggs, or the spider’s webbed victims. Human intervention aside, the mantid would likely not survive very long in this sticky and vulnerable state.
Nature, however, does not build garages, which meant human intervention was already a factor. Insects who found themselves inside this garage were also routinely subject to intervention. I’ve been known to relocate indoor spiders elsewhere out-of-doors or to release my indoor cat to playfully dismantle the errant cricket. Besides, I reasoned, there was no sense in allowing one of nature’s most incredible predators to be taken out by a lucky, mostly unwelcomed, well-placed arachnid.
At my childhood Long Island suburban home, a family of mantids inhabited the arborvitae directly outside my front door. I believed, was told, mantids were endangered, a common misconception caused by their general rarity and low numbers. I relished in the mantis’ ability to keep flies and other insects away from our porch, silent bug zappers, and I felt privileged whenever I saw them clinging to the railing or resting on a shaded needle. I hadn’t seen one in the 15 years since we’d moved.
To find a mantis struggling against bindings was so peculiar and incredibly sad to my mother and me. Her yelping was entirely understandable. Save the mantis! I rushed to action.
I retrieved a few twigs and a postcard of junk mail. Bending down over the mantid, I used the twigs to slowly detach her from the wall and carefully transferred her to the card. She froze, no longer moving her head or limbs at all. Was this fear? Instinctual protection? I had no idea how sturdy or fragile her limbs were and hoped that any damage was impermanent. I moved to a nearby patch of grass and knelt down, placing her still-webbed body gently on the ground. Only her back two legs were untangled. Her face turned to mine as if sizing me up. Friend or foe? Her mantid eyes were mesmerizing and I lost a few seconds to the awe of being so close to such a magnificent, alien-looking creature.
Shaking quickly from the reverie, I began the arduous process of removing the spider silk from her body and forearms, one sticky strand or clump at a time. I spoke in soothing soft tones as I would an injured animal, not knowing what mantis hearing was like. (Later, I’d learn that mantids have a single ear in the center of their chest, which they use to help them hunt flies, cicadas, and even *gasp* bats.) During the field procedure, she meditated continually on my face, her head in a upturned angle in my direction. I expected that at any moment, once free, she would flee if her wings were still in tact. Instead, she remained, lifting each newly freed limb and flapping each wing as it became unstuck.
With the last of the webbing removed, she turned her head away. I placed my hand near her forearms, wondering if, cinematically, she might crawl upon my arm. Sharply, she turned to look at me and rocked back and forth on her back legs. Then, she ceased swaying and gently placed her forearms around my pointer finger for three or four seconds. It was a brief handshake between humble predators. My heart swelled up and a lump caught in my throat. I’d received gratitude from a queen of the insect kingdom.
She moved her hands to the recognizable mantid prayer position and began again to sway, a common mantid hunting technique. It occurred to me that she must be incredibly hungry after her ordeal — mantids will often skip meals and then hunt for bigger and better prey to compensate — if she had been searching for a meal when she was ensnared. I left her to her devices, walked slowly away, and watched her from a distance, until she flew off about 20 minutes later.
I expected it would be the last I saw of her. I was wrong.
About a month later, she clung to my front door, hunting moths attracted to my porch light. I watched from inside the glass pane as her head turned, her legs bent, and she snatched an unsuspecting meal from the air.
Not long after that, a green mantis, whom I assumed to be male, appeared on my parked car tire at the far end of my driveway, and then the next day on the deck railing. From a crouch, I watched him hunt a large horsefly from 3ft away. It was truly a sight to see. Giving him distance, I observed his prayer-like dance, his calculation of wind speed, direction, distance, and time, before he flew (more accurately, leapt) toward the fly, and the two disappeared from view underneath the deck. (I can only assume the fly was ended that day, but not alone. It is unlikely the male mantis lived much longer, either, as female mantids are known to devour the heads of their mates shortly after breeding.)
I learned through later research that mantids will often choose to live and breed in decaying wooden structures. They are not relegated to shaded shrubbery, as I had mistakenly presumed. Unknowingly, I had been cultivating the ideal mantid habitat right outside my front door. Plenty of prey, food, and crumbling, unsealed decking had likely attracted the mantids in the first place.
It was a month after that, the first of several babies, nearly translucent and an inch long each, appeared on the front door’s frame.
My connection with the female mantid from that fateful day forward was palpable. Even if the webbing was uninhabited, she would have surely starved in a futile effort to escape. I had only intended to save her from imminent peril, but her wide eyes trusted me, the giant in her microbiome. Did her countenance really change from fear to gratitude? I could never have expected a ‘hand’ shake, nor did I anticipate that she had chosen my home as her own.
Has my house become a stopover from the mantids of the neighborhood? A place to rest, hunt, and nest? Will this summer bring a new generation of neighborly mantids, for whom I’ll imagine wildly unrealistic personalities and magnanimous friendships? Only time will tell. The only thing I can say for certain is that the intervention was a success and my humanity errs closer to nature than I knew.