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September 27, 2013 / Rae Spencer

Praying Mantis, September 2013

Last night I found a praying mantis on the kitchen window. As I watched it groom its antennae and feet, I imagined it was using the window as a mirror.

Mantis Sept 26

I have no doubt that clean antennae and feet matter on a functional level, but does some portion of a praying mantis’s experience reflect a sentiment I would call vanity?

Mantis Sept 26

I thought about the mantis off and on all night. Does fall make it anxious? Are these last few weeks of summer, its last few weeks of life, more urgent than all of its previous weeks?

I decided to look for the mantis again today, starting with the flower beds closest to the kitchen window. When I found it (or a similarly sized mantis) the situation was decidedly urgent.

Mantis Sept 27

At first I thought a mantis had caught one of the yard’s few remaining dragonflies. Then I realized it had caught another praying mantis. Or rather, the two insects had caught each other.

When I approached with my camera, they retreated to the underside of the ginger lily’s leaf.

Mantis Sept 27

The battle took place in slow motion, a strained embrace of stamina, strength, and will. Both sustained significant injuries:  the larger mantis mauled its opponent’s bent and broken wing, while the smaller mantis locked one barbed foreleg over a vulnerable eye.

Mantis Sept 27

Gradually, the smaller mantis extracted its damaged wing, and it seemed on the verge of gaining an advantage.

Mantis Sept 27

But the larger mantis broke its opponent’s grip and disabled the smaller mantis by biting through the major joints of both forelegs.

Mantis Sept 27

It was a brutal way to end the battle, precursor to an even more brutal death for the defeated. I didn’t stay to watch the victor dine, but when I returned a half-hour later, little remained of the smaller mantis.

Mantis Sept 27

I’m fond of praying mantises. They are among my favorite subjects to photograph. But this encounter? This is not why I love praying mantises, and I didn’t enjoy taking these photos. I don’t know why I watched so long.

In particular, I regret that my presence changed the course of their struggle. Except, it’s possible my presence in the yard changes the course of every struggle. Perhaps my camera affects everything I photograph, and my eyes affect everything I see.

Mantis Sept 27

14 Comments

  1. lenkennedy / Sep 28 2013 3:59 AM

    I look forward to your posts. I admire the way you weave pictures with words.
    Len

  2. timelesslady / Sep 28 2013 10:04 AM

    I enjoy watching and photographing praying mantis insects too. Each winter I search for a pod or two in nearby meadows. But…while researching them this year for a blog post, I came upon what I hope is just a myth…that a large, fully-grown mantis can capture and kill a hummingbird. I don’t know if this is fact or fiction, but I can very much relate to you walking away from the end of the fight. You captured amazing photographs. Thanks for sharing.

    • Rae Spencer / Sep 28 2013 12:45 PM

      Unfortunately, the story about hummingbirds seems to be true. There are several videos posted online that show praying mantises hanging out on hummingbird feeders. 😦

  3. makemeadiva / Sep 28 2013 3:46 PM

    Thought provoking on many levels. Love the photos, especially the reflections…

    In the UK, we have dragonflies but no praying mantises

    • Rae Spencer / Sep 28 2013 3:58 PM

      No praying mantises? I looked up a distribution map, after seeing your comment, and it looks like their North American range extends into Canada for some species. I often see praying mantis egg cases for sale in garden stores. If I lived somewhere outside their range, I would miss them.

  4. jeanryan1 / Sep 29 2013 7:55 AM

    I’m not sure your presence changed the course of their struggle–sounds like they were carrying on in a determined fashion, as they naturally would, and you simply recorded it. A few months back I tossed a small cucumber beetle into a spider’s web–now that was something to regret, that was a significant trespass.

    • Rae Spencer / Sep 29 2013 1:42 PM

      When I was a teenager, I spent hours hunting crickets and grasshoppers to feed to the writing spiders around our barn. It became such a habit that I have trouble, now, controlling the impulse whenever a see a cricket near a spider web…

      • jeanryan1 / Sep 29 2013 3:41 PM

        Children have thicker skins than adults. They’re made to rough and tumble their way through the world, while older folks are designed to pull meaning from it. That’s a fair arrangement, I think.

  5. Random Acts of Writing / Sep 29 2013 6:29 PM

    Absolutely fascinating!!

  6. Sylvia Ismail / Oct 1 2013 10:29 AM

    I’ve just found your blog, and I admire your skillful combination of photographs and words. I particularly like the praying mantis reportage: Recently, in my garden here in New Cairo, I’ve come across some spectacular mantis – bright green and incredibly elegant, they swivel their heads and follow me as I bob around them taking photos. I’m sure they are watching me intently. Occasionally they are also wiping clean their jaws. I’ve never actually seen the battle royal that you captured, or the unfortunate aftermath!
    The Lucy poem is very thought-provoking. Living in Egypt, I feel a strong sense of an extraordinarily ancient people and culture, albeit more recent than in the Rift Valley to the south. Thank you!

  7. Lisa Alber / Oct 4 2013 7:32 PM

    Wow, love this even though makes me squirm too. I wonder if you caught the end of copulation. The females are larger and eat the males. Sad thing for the males … they just want a little procreation! 🙂 Thanks for visiting my blog today.

    • Rae Spencer / Oct 5 2013 9:47 PM

      I wondered about that, too. I’m almost certain they were male and female, but I’m not convinced they were the same species. Also, I found several references that suggested this kind of predatory behavior is not always related to mating behavior. Apparently, in some species male praying mantises make up a significant portion of the females’ diets. (As an aside, Carl Zimmer wrote an interesting column about sexual cannibalism for The New York Times in 2006 (“This Can’t Be Love”).)

      I’m looking forward to reading your book!

  8. Jim Lawlor / Oct 30 2013 7:25 AM

    This is really quite facinating – amazing pictures!

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