If you spotted one of the unusually large green or brownish insects working on its kung fu moves in late summer, you would have undoubtedly spotted a praying mantis. These insects are an unusual sight in Wisconsin as we really don’t have native mantids in our area. The closest native mantid, the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), occurs in the southeastern US and does makes its way as far north as Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. A stray may show up in Wisconsin on occasion, but this seems to be an exception, rather than the norm.
When mantids are found in the upper Midwest, the culprits are typically two introduced species: the European mantis (Mantis religiosa) and the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis). Both of these species have been in the country since the late 1800’s and have become well established in North America. Of these, the Chinese mantis stands out with its sheer size as it can approach 5 inches in length with its outstretched legs. The Chinese mantis is our largest and commonest species, based on observations.
Overall, mantids are much more common in southern states. The scarcity of these insects in the upper Midwest has a lot to do with their life cycle. For the species in our region, females lay egg pouches (oothecae) in late summer or early fall in exposed locations—twigs, gardening stakes, and similar spots. If there’s a harsh winter, these exposed egg masses face the brunt of the cold and mortality is high. As a result, the vast majority of Wisconsin’s mantid sightings are restricted to southern and eastern counties where temperatures are slightly warmer during the winter months. In 2017, there was a distinct increase in mantid sightings, likely due to the two consecutive mild winters in our area. Assuming an egg case makes it through the winter, hundreds of juvenile mantids emerge in spring and surviving individuals reach maturity by late summer.
Not only are mantids fascinating creatures to watch, but they’re impressive predators as well. A number of adaptations place mantids amongst the top predators of the insect world. First off, large eyes give them excellent stereoptic vision—if you’ve ever watched a mantis, they’ve watched you as well. Camouflage also benefits many mantids, with color patterns that allow them to stealthily hide on plants, waiting to ambush unsuspecting prey with ninja-like agility. The tropical orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus), even takes camouflage to an extreme with bright pink coloration to blend in on flowers. The grisliest adaptation would be the enlarged “raptorial” forelegs armed with spines, which allow mantids to rapidly seize and impale prey and hold them in a final, lethal embrace as they begin to eat. Mantids typically eat a variety of flies, moths, bees, butterflies, and other insects, but large mantids have even been known to prey upon birds on occasion [Note: it’s pretty gruesome and involves eating brains!]. Mantids aren’t picky eaters, so cannibalism can even be a significant challenge to those trying to raise them.
While uncommon in our area, reports of mantids may continue to increase in the future with climbing temperatures and milder winters—something to keep an eye out for!