When I was a child growing up in New York, I once found an insect egg case in a meadow near our home. It was a tan, meringue-like mass attached to a twig, and I put it in our screened porch and forgot about it until the following spring.
One warm afternoon, I noticed a stream of tiny praying mantis nymphs emerging headfirst from the egg case. Over a hundred other little mantises had already populated the porch. My ever-patient mother helped me gather them up and re-locate them to her garden.
Most disappeared, but some stayed, grew larger, and matured. Occasionally we'd spot one perched on a flower, waiting in ambush for passing prey.
Because of their brown or green coloration, mantises aren't conspicuous, but they're easy to identify.
Never miss a local story.
Their bodies are long and slender (females are fatter), and their spiny forelegs are held in a characteristic "praying" (or "preying") position. Their flexible "neck" allows them to swivel their triangular head from side to side, and large compound eyes provide excellent distance vision.
Praying mantises eat almost anything they can catch, typically other insects. Larger species may even attack scorpions, lizards, frogs, snakes, and small birds.
Mantises are, of course, notorious for sexual cannibalism.
During mating, females may seize and devour their mates much as if they were prey. They eat the head first (normal feeding behavior), though the rest of the male's body remains capable of mating. It's a macabre scenario from human perspectives, but also the subject of ongoing research by biologists.
Laboratory studies show that female mantises benefit nutritionally by eating their mates. In fact, cannibalism is more likely when the female is hungry or if the pair is disturbed.
In one species, male mantises can apparently tell if females are hungry or well fed. They approach hungry mates more slowly and cautiously -- unless they haven't seen females at all for a few days. In that case, they throw caution to the wind and take greater risks.
Overall, sexual cannibalism in praying mantises is probably less common in nature than under artificial conditions, and it varies widely among species.
Worldwide, there are over 2,000 kinds of mantises, including our own Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina).
It's the state insect of South Carolina.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University, lives on Hilton Head Island.