Get Up Close and Personal with Mysterious Mantids

Turn over a leaf and meet the intriguing hunters in your backyard.

Maybe you’ve spotted a 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.

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. In the grand scheme, mantises feast on more bad bugs than good bugs, and it’s much more natural to rely on them to do the dirty work of controlling pesky insect populations than it is to spray toxic pesticides.

The praying mantis 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. 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, ready to devour any garden pests that come their way.

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, and you are well on your way to a praying mantis paradise.

More On Mantids

Although the praying mantis is a welcome backyard guest, 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.

David Mizejewski
David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.