Praying Mantis: Fierce and Fascinating Garden Bugs

Find out what foods a praying mantis will eat and how to attract these beneficial bugs. Plus learn about praying mantis eggs and babies.

praying mantisCourtesy Amanda West

Maybe you’ve spotted a praying mantis clinging to a thin branch or skulking in a thick garden hedge. With front legs folded in what looks like prayer, these large-bodied insects are fun to look at—and hard to miss. Throw in their unusual behavior, like cocking their heads sideways and hunting prey big and small, and praying mantises become some of the fiercest and most fascinating bugs in your garden.

Well over a thousand mantid species crawl across the globe, but only a handful live in North America. Collectively, they go by the catchall term “praying mantis” because of the way the insect holds its forelimbs in front of its thorax. But that serene posture can be deceiving: While it may seem to be in deep meditation, it’s actually waiting for an unsuspecting insect to venture too close.

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Ask the Experts: What Does a Praying Mantis Eat?

Bnbugc Glenda Powell 2Courtesy Glenda Powell
Praying mantis on a coneflower

Mantids typically eat other bugs but aren’t too picky about dinner. If a fellow garden visitor passes near enough, they instinctively try to grab it and make a meal of it. While this does mean that praying mantises will consume beneficial insects, like butterflies and bees, they’re also happy to dine on pests like mosquitoes and flies.

“I’ve heard from some people that praying mantises are a problem in gardens. Is this true?” says Sue Moreaux, Forestville, Wisconsin.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman: Praying mantises eat other insects, so they’re sometimes recommended for pest control, but they’re just as likely to eat pollinators as pests, so their impacts are mostly neutral. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the Northeast, most large mantises belong to three introduced species, one from Europe and two from Asia, and they can cause problems when their populations are unnaturally high. In flower gardens they may catch many bees, butterflies and other pollinators, and they have even been known to kill hummingbirds on occasion.

Melinda Myers: Most gardeners are happy to see praying mantises in their garden. They are predators who eat flies, beetles, crickets, moths and grasshoppers. Smaller prey, not hummingbirds, are their preferred food. They may snatch a hummingbird when pursuing insects drawn to the sugary water in hummingbird feeders. Or, if they are hungry enough, they may go after this much larger prey. The larger tropical mantises will eat other animals such as lizards and frogs.

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Praying Mantis Predators

Melinda says birds, spiders and bats eat praying mantises, and if they fall into water they can become a meal for fish.

How Long Does a Praying Mantis Live?

baby praying mantis on a fingerAkchamczuk/Getty Images
A baby praying mantis

The life cycle takes about a year. Females reach full size by mid- to late summer, when they are ready to mate. The males, which are a lot smaller, proceed with caution, because cannibalism isn’t unknown in mantid species.

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Praying Mantis Eggs and Babies

Egg of Praying Mantiskororokerokero/Getty Images
Egg sac

Afterward, the female lays a cluster of eggs on a plant stem and encases them in foam that dries into a protective case. The eggs overwinter and develop. Then, come springtime, they hatch into miniature replicas of the adults. These baby praying mantis are ready to devour any garden pests that come their way.

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How to Attract a Praying Mantis

No matter where you live, the best way to persuade mantids to settle in your garden or landscape is simply to fill your space with a wide range of plants. Native plants work best because they more readily attract tasty insects. Avoid insecticides, too.

Chinese Mantids

Insect of Praying Mantis on ornamental fir tree branches.marvod/Getty Images

Although most mantids are welcome backyard guests, one species in particular overstays its welcome: Chinese mantids. They’re eye-catching, but these invasive insects are replacing native species such as the Carolina mantid. The situation is not complete gloom and doom, though. Like all mantids, this species eats pesky garden bugs, too.

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Praying Mantis Control

Kenn and Kimberly say, “If your garden seems overrun with mantises, you can pick some off by hand (wear gloves) and remove them. In late fall, look for the distinctive mantis egg cases on your plants and destroy those to reduce the next year’s population.”

Next, check out the ultimate guide to growing milkweed plants for monarchs.

David Mizejewski
David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, as well as a nationally recognized media personality and speaker. He hosted and co-produced Backyard Habitat, a series on Animal Planet that showed people how to transform their yards and gardens into thriving habitats for birds and other local wildlife. He has also appeared in the Animal Planet mini-series Springwatch U.S.A., as well as Nat Geo WILD on series such as Are You Smarter Than, How Human Are You, and Unlikely Animal Friends. He co-hosted Nat Geo’s prime time television series Pet Talk. In addition to writing for Birds & Blooms, he is the author of the book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife.
Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten has more than 15 years of experience writing and editing birding and gardening content. As content director of Birds & Blooms, she leads the team of editors and freelance writers sharing tried-and-true advice for nature enthusiasts who love to garden and feed birds in their backyards. Since joining Birds & Blooms 17 years ago, Kirsten has held roles in digital and print, editing direct-to-consumer books, running as many as five magazines at a time, and managing special interest publications. Kirsten has traveled to see amazing North American birds and attended various festivals, including the Sedona Hummingbird Festival, the Rio Grande Bird Festival, The Biggest Week in American Birding Festival, and the Cape May Spring Festival. She has also witnessed the epic sandhill crane migration while on a photography workshop trip to Colorado. Kirsten has participated in several GardenComm and Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conferences and is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. When she's not researching, writing, and editing all things birding and gardening, Kirsten is enjoying the outdoors with her nature-loving family. She and her husband are slowly chipping away at making their small acreage the backyard of their dreams.