So this summer is an experiment to see if I can stock the fields and garden with praying mantises. I’ll have to say, I haven’t seen any of the released mantids but I wanted to say a few words about my history with this insect.
My paternal grandfather was a doctor and he had a fellow physician who liked to give books as gifts to his friend’s children. And one of these gifts was a very handsome edition of Fabre’s Book of Insects to my father when he was a boy. Well, in my turn I inherited this book and I was fascinated by the author’s scientific investigation of the common insects to be found around the fields of Provence, France and charmed by the very attractive illustrations that adorned its pages. In fact I still enjoy looking through the book and seeing these pictures eighty six years after it was published. And I’ve provided copies of the book to my own grandsons to try to capture that same sense of wonder at combining nature and art in a form that a young boy can enjoy.
So I’m juxtaposing the original inspiration of my interest in the mantids with my own modest attempts to document their fascinating existence.
As a kid I had a copy of Fabre’s Book of Insects that had been my father’s when he was a little boy. I always loved the pictures and the literary writing style.
The little we have seen of the customs of the Mantis does not square very well with the popular name for the insect. From the term Prègo-Diéu we should expect a peaceful placid creature, devoutly self-absorbed; and we find a cannibal, a ferocious spectre, biting open the heads of its captives after demoralising them with terror. But we have yet to learn the worst. The customs of the Mantis in connection with its own kin are more atrocious even than those of the spiders, who bear an ill repute in this respect.
To reduce the number of cages on my big laboratory table, to give myself a little more room, while still maintaining a respectable menagerie, I installed several females under one cover. There was sufficient space in the common lodging and room for the captives to move about, though for that matter they are not fond of movement, being heavy in the abdomen. Crouching motionless against the wire work of the cover, they will digest their food or await a passing victim. They lived, in short, just as they lived on their native bushes.
Communal life has its dangers. When the hay is low in the manger donkeys grow quarrelsome, although usually so pacific. My guests might well, in a season of dearth, have lost their tempers and begun to fight one another; but I was careful to keep the cages well provided with crickets, which were renewed twice a day. If civil war broke out famine could not be urged in excuse.
At the outset matters did not go badly. The company lived in peace, each Mantis pouncing upon and eating whatever came her way, without interfering with her neighbours. But this period of concord was of brief duration. The bellies of the insects grew fuller: the eggs ripened in their ovaries: the time of courtship and the laying season was approaching. Then a kind of jealous rage seized the females, although no male was present to arouse such feminine rivalry. The swelling of the ovaries perverted my flock, and infected them with an insane desire to devour one another. There were threats, horrid encounters, and cannibal feasts. Once more the spectral pose was seen, the hissing of the wings, and the terrible gesture of the talons outstretched and raised above the head. The females could not have looked more terrible before a grey cricket or a Decticus. Without any motives that I could see, two neighbours suddenly arose in the attitude of conflict. They turned their heads to the right and the left, provoking one another, insulting one another. The pouf! pouf! of the wings rubbed by the abdomen sounded the charge. Although the duel was to terminate at the first scratch, without any more serious consequence, the murderous talons, at first folded, open like the leaves of a book, and are extended laterally to protect the long waist and abdomen. The pose is superb, but less terrific than that assumed when the fight is to be to the death.
Then one of the grappling-hooks with a sudden spring flies out and strikes the rival; with the same suddenness it flies back and assumes a position of guard. The adversary replies with a riposte. The fencing reminds one not a little of two cats boxing one another’s ears. At the first sign of blood on the soft abdomen, or even at the slightest wound, one admits herself to be conquered and retires. The other refurls her battle standard and goes elsewhere to meditate the capture of a cricket, apparently calm, but in reality ready to recommence the quarrel.
Very often the matter turns out more tragically. In duels to the death the pose of attack is assumed in all its beauty. The murderous talons unfold and rise in the air. Woe to the vanquished! for the victor seizes her in her vice-like grip and at once commences to eat her; beginning, needless to say, at the back of the neck. The odious meal proceeds as calmly as if it were merely a matter of munching a grasshopper; and the survivor enjoys her sister quite as much as lawful game. The spectators do not protest, being only too willing to do the like on the first occasion.
Ferocious creatures! It is said that even wolves do not eat one another. The Mantis is not so scrupulous; she will eat her fellows when her favourite quarry, the cricket, is attainable and abundant.
These observations reach a yet more revolting extreme. Let us inquire into the habits of the insect at breeding time, and to avoid the confusion of a crowd let us isolate the couples under different covers. Thus each pair will have their own dwelling, where nothing can trouble their honeymoon. We will not forget to provide them with abundant food; there shall not be the excuse of hunger for what is to follow.
We are near the end of August. The male Mantis, a slender and elegant lover, judges the time to be propitious. He makes eyes at his powerful companion; he turns his head towards her; he bows his neck and raises his thorax. His little pointed face almost seems to wear an expression. For a long time he stands thus motionless, in contemplation of the desired one. The latter, as though indifferent, does not stir. Yet the lover has seized upon a sign of consent: a sign of which I do not know the secret. He approaches: suddenly he erects his wings, which are shaken with a convulsive tremor.
This is his declaration. He throws himself timidly on the back of his corpulent companion; he clings to her desperately, and steadies himself. The prelude to the embrace is generally lengthy, and the embrace will sometimes last for five or six hours.
Nothing worthy of notice occurs during this time. Finally the two separate, but they are soon to be made one flesh in a much more intimate fashion. If the poor lover is loved by his mistress as the giver of fertility, she also loves him as the choicest of game. During the day, or at latest on the morrow, he is seized by his companion, who first gnaws through the back of his neck, according to use and wont, and then methodically devours him, mouthful by mouthful, leaving only the wings. Here we have no case of jealousy, but simply a depraved taste.
I had the curiosity to wonder how a second male would be received by a newly fecundated female. The result of my inquiry was scandalous. The Mantis in only too many cases is never sated with embraces and conjugal feasts. After a rest, of variable duration, whether the eggs have been laid or not, a second male is welcomed and devoured like the first. A third succeeds him, does his duty, and affords yet another meal. A fourth suffers a like fate. In the course of two weeks I have seen the same Mantis treat seven husbands in this fashion. She admitted all to her embraces, and all paid for the nuptial ecstasy with their lives.
There are exceptions, but such orgies are frequent. On very hot days, when the atmospheric tension is high, they are almost the general rule. At such times the Mantis is all nerves. Under covers which contain large households the females devour one another more frequently than ever; under the covers which contain isolated couples the males are devoured more eagerly than usual when their office has been fulfilled.
I might urge, in mitigation of these conjugal atrocities, that the Mantis does not commit them when at liberty. The male, his function once fulfilled, surely has time to wander off, to escape far away, to flee the terrible spouse, for in my cages he is given a respite, often of a whole day. What really happens by the roadside and in the thickets I do not know; chance, a poor schoolmistress, has never instructed me concerning the love-affairs of the Mantis when at liberty. I am obliged to watch events in my laboratory, where the captives, enjoying plenty of sunshine, well nourished, and comfortably lodged, do not seem in any way to suffer from nostalgia. They should behave there as they behave under normal conditions.
Alas! the facts force me to reject the statement that the males have time to escape; for I once surprised a male, apparently in the performance of his vital functions, holding the female tightly embraced—but he had no head, no neck, scarcely any thorax! The female, her head turned over her shoulder, was peacefully browsing on the remains of her lover! And the masculine remnant, firmly anchored, continued its duty!
Love, it is said, is stronger than death! Taken literally, never has an aphorism received a more striking confirmation. Here was a creature decapitated, amputated as far as the middle of the thorax; a corpse which still struggled to give life. It would not relax its hold until the abdomen itself, the seat of the organs of procreation, was attacked.
The custom of eating the lover after the consummation of the nuptials, of making a meal of the exhausted pigmy, who is henceforth good for nothing, is not so difficult to understand, since insects can hardly be accused of sentimentality; but to devour him during the act surpasses anything that the most morbid mind could imagine. I have seen the thing with my own eyes, and I have not yet recovered from my surprise.
Could this unfortunate creature have fled and saved himself, being thus attacked in the performance of his functions? No. We must conclude that the loves of the Mantis are fully as tragic, perhaps even more so, than those of the spider. I do not deny that the limited area of the cage may favour the massacre of the males; but the cause of such butchering must be sought elsewhere. It is perhaps a reminiscence of the carboniferous period when the insect world gradually took shape through prodigious procreation. The Orthoptera, of which the Mantes form a branch, are the first-born of the insect world.
Uncouth, incomplete in their transformation, they wandered amidst the arborescent foliage, already flourishing when none of the insects sprung of more complex forms of metamorphosis were as yet in existence: neither butterflies, beetles, flies, nor bees. Manners were not gentle in those epochs, which were full of the lust to destroy in order to produce; and the Mantis, a feeble memory of those ancient ghosts, might well preserve the customs of an earlier age. The utilisation of the males as food is a custom in the case of other members of the Mantis family. It is, I must admit, a general habit. The little grey Mantis, so small and looking so harmless in her cage, which never seeks to harm her neighbours in spite of her crowded quarters, falls upon her male and devours him as ferociously as the Praying Mantis. I have worn myself out in trying to procure the indispensable complements to my female specimens. No sooner is my capture, strongly winged, vigorous and alert, introduced into the cage than he is seized, more often than not, by one of the females who no longer have need of his assistance and devoured. Once the ovaries are satisfied the two species of Mantis conceive an antipathy for the male; or rather they regard him merely as a particularly tasty species of game