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On The Town
John O'Reilly
August 30, 1954
The praying mantis (above, life-size) is causing panic in the streets
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August 30, 1954

On The Town

The praying mantis (above, life-size) is causing panic in the streets

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In the fall, the female deposits her eggs in a case resembling dried foam. All winter long these egg cases cling to the twigs of bushes and trees. In late spring as many as 200 tiny mantises will hatch out of a single egg mass. At birth they are agile and ready to pounce on any insect they can master.

On first meeting an adult praying mantis, people usually mention the eyes, the most prominent features of its triangular head. It is really not so much the eyes but the way the mantis uses them that causes consternation. It can turn its head almost all the way around, like an owl, and if you walk in front of one it will follow you with a cold, supercilious stare. It is the only insect that can look over its shoulder.

This late-summer city-goer is an Oriental species which first appeared in this country at a plant nursery at Germantown, Pa. around 1896. It was believed that the egg cases were clinging to some plants imported from China.

Attaining a length of four inches, this immigrant is larger than any of the 15 or more species of praying mantis native to the United States.

Its prodigious appetite for other insects led the Oriental mantis to be regarded as valuable to have around a garden. Some entomologists point out that it eats the good along with the bad, relishing a honey bee as much as a Japanese beetle. But in most gardens the newcomer is welcome. It spread out from Pennsylvania slowly of its own accord and later people began doing a mail-order business in mantises, collecting egg cases and shipping them all over. Now the creature may show up in anybody's home town.

Even among city folk the original jitters soon wear off and many a mantis now becomes a pet. City people will make pets of almost anything. I once knew a small boy who filched a cherry-stone clam from his mother before she could serve it on the half shell and made a nest for it. Mantises make much better pets than clams.

There have been so many demands for information on these fall invaders that the American Museum of Natural History now gets out a leaflet on the care and feeding of mantises. Included is a warning to keep them in separate cages if you have more than one. The female has a grisly trait that she shares with the spider: after mating, in captivity at least, she will often devour her spouse. In the insect world, no one invites a mantis to dinner.

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