The name "Lady M" stands for Lady Mantis. Not a very imaginative name for my first pet mantis, you might say. Perhaps you are right, but I think it would have seemed more appropriate to you if you had met her in person.
Lady M was my first-ever "insect pet" and she was very special. I had loads of fun raising her from nymph stage to adult, and I ended up playing with her every single day. I discovered that owning a mantis is very much like owning a cat in more ways than one!
Meeting Lady M
Meet "Lady M"
Lady M was an African Mantis that I purchased as a '2nd-molt' (approximately 1.5 month old) nymph from Noah's Pet Ark on Broadway Avenue in Vancouver, Canada. She was well socialized, and would happily climb out of her cage onto my hands and perch on my shoulder or arm without fear.
Her particular personality trait was that she ate and ate and ate. Having had many other mantis pets since I now know that Lady M ate more than the typical pet mantis. I fed her nearly every day, and sometimes I fed her multiple times a day.
Because she was my 'first', I could never get tired of watching her stalk, catch, and eat her prey. It was just soooo darn cool!!! After having studied praying mantis kung fu for 4 years, to finally see the 'original fighting style' at work was an unbelievably profound experience. I have heard other mantis fist practitioners refer to the insect as "The Little Sifu".
It is hard to describe how many aspects of praying mantis fist kung fu have been incorporated from this "tiger" of the Insect World's fighting arsenal. Suffice it to say that every one of the character principles of praying mantis kung fu and many of the deeper philosophies of the system are evidenced by this fascinating creature.
The Daily Feast
I hunted for feeder insects for Lady M all over the place. Where ever I went I carried small bottles with holes punched in their lids and I kept my eyes peeled for insect species that I hadn't yet exposed her to. I experimented with different types of prey and learned her food preferences.
It turned out that she just 'freaked out with joy' about eating pretty much anything that flew. She would instantly pay attention when I put the hapless flying insect meal into her terrarium. She would begin to rock side-to-side in 'excitement', or so it appeared to me.
I have since learned that the characteristic, side-to side rocking movement serves to provide the mantis with a complete picture of the full field-of-view and enables it to triangulate the position of its target. True "Binocular Vision", a trait that is completely rare within the insect world.
Because of the way that the mantis is rocking, its prey perceive it as merely part of the scenery, like a twig or leaf, blowing in the wind. Meanwhile, during the process of consuming their prey, the insect will move from side-to-side or order that its predators are less likely to spot it.
In the distorted world of "insect perception" with their complicated "compound eyes", it's actually much better to be moving than to sit still if you want to remain undetected. By sitting still, one's shape allows an tiny insect brain to distinguish predator from background among the many different inputs that it receives from each facet of its eye-surface. However, when faced with the gently waving strands of a thousand blades of grass, or a tree full of leaves moving in the breeze, multiplied by thousands of different angles, the insect brain has to 'summarize' the data inputs and it loses the 'signal for the noise'. In other words, by moving rhythmically, the mantis fades into the background.
Fastidious Eating Habits
Lady M loved to eat moths and butterflies the best of all... but she never ate their wings. After devouring their tasty bodies, she would fastidiously clean her talons and wipe her lips and palps of the dust from the wings. These feathery and colourful reminders of a recent feast would be casually discarded in a characteristic heap at the bottom of the cage. Meanwhile, the process of cleaning its face, limbs, and antennae are very endearing. The mantis 'grooming' is highly reminiscent of a powerful feline, such as a tiger, proudly cleaning itself after a good hunt.
If I would put multiple moths into Lady M's cage on a given night, I would inevitably wake up the next morning to find only discrete little piles of wings and legs in different spots in the terrarium, and never any living moths.
Once, I personally witnessed her catching two moths at the same time! She snagged the first one with both forelegs, then shifted her grip, transferring her prey securely to one foreleg she reached out and caught the other insect with one limb only. She looked up at me with one moth on each leg and I swear she offered me up a self-pleased grin. She then proceeded to eat each moth, methodically, one-by-one and with much happy rocking... leaving an extra large pile of wings and dust on the bottom of the cage.
Not Fastidious, but Selective
It has been reported by some that mantids will eat any insect at all, and are indiscriminate in their appetite. In the case of Lady M, it would not be right to say that she was fastidious, but she was certainly selective in her approach to prey.
The same passion that she exhibited towards moths was not true of all of the food that I put in her cage. For example, she rarely ate beetles, and never touched lady bugs. She didn't like wasps, but loved bees. She ate some kinds of spiders, but maintained a truce with others.
Supposedly lady bugs (aka: ladybird beetles) are 'bitter' in taste to predatory insects and birds, and are widely considered unappetizing. Certainly, all the ladybugs that I have ever put in with my pet mantids have seemed to survive and co-exist peacefully with their ferocious cousins. This is actually a good thing, since my friend thought that I was particularly 'mean' to throw cute little innocent ladybugs in with my nasty mantis-pet.
To me it wasn't insect-sacrificing viciousness... it was kung fu training!
I was exposing Lady M to a variety of prey in order to watch how she interacted with them and to observe her hunting techniques.
The only flying insects that Lady M disliked were wasps. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that she 'hated' wasps with a passion. The first time I put a wasp in the cage I could tell immediately that there was a problem. Lady M, a medium-sized nymph, looked around at the sound of the wasp's angry wing buzzings. She seemed to shrink up against the roof of the cage and try to make herself 'small'. The wasp paid no attention to the mantis but flew around madly, as wasps are wont to do, bumping into the walls and the roof in its search for a way out of the cage. At some point the wasp blundered into the mantis, flying at medium speed, and I was completely surprised to observe Lady M falling straight to the floor of the cage and landing awkwardly on her back. She righted herself slowly and then climbed back up to the top of the cage. Meanwhile, I had let the wasp out of the cage and released it to the outdoors.
I didn't expose Lady M to wasps again until she was fully grown. I had initially been surprised that my 'tough Lady M', this seemingly fearless predator, had not mounted any resistance against her yellow-and-black-banded opponent. I would have at least thought that she might flick her fore-legs at it and try to fend if off, but it seemed that there was a deeper instinct at work. The teenage Lady M was 'outgunned' by the wasp. She knew that she wasn't ready to take on that foe, and so resorted to defensive action in order to avoid conflict.
Later, I was to learn that the wasp is one of the praying mantid's arch-enemies. Many species of wasp are evolved to hunt mantids, and to specifically lay their eggs in mantis egg-sacs!
Once Lady M was fully grown, however, having reached her adult metamorphosis, things were different with wasps. After her final molt Lady M developed a whole different caliber of body-armour than she had exhibited as a nymph. In addition, after that molt she unfurled her two sets of wings. At that point she wasn't afraid of wasps, since she had completely developed her body armour and tibial spines. But it was clear to me that she fully perceived the wasp as her 'enemy'. She would kill any wasp that I put in the cage, but never ate much more of them than their heads. (I guess the quickest way to silence them was to eat their brainstem and then let their bodies drop to the cage-floor.) I occasionally threw a little wasp into the cage in order to watch the battles...
|Lady M's attitude about bees was the complete opposite of how she felt about wasps. Again, my girlfriend complained that I was "catching nice little honey bees and throwing them in with the Beast!" It was not true, I protested. It was just that my favourite pet, Lady M, just loved to munch on bees and I merely wanted to keep her happy, healthy, and fat! Lady M was especially fond of honey bees, and cared not as much for the drones. She would rarely eat the legs off of any other insects (which don't have much meat on them). However, she would always eat honey bee legs, on the back of which there is a pouch for storing amber nectar, derived from pollen. Clearly this was honeyed ambrosia for Lady M.
A Very Large Abdomen
Eventually, Lady M got so big in the abdomen, that I sometimes thought that she looked a little bit like a set of bag-pipes with long spindly legs. There's only so much room that an abdomen can expand on a praying mantis once they've finished their final molt. In the wild, I doubt that they would ever manage to eat very many tasty and tender, juicy insect morsels without running around a bit to catch them. But my 'lady' of a pet got as much food as she could handle, and then a little more. In fact, Lady M ate so much that she got large enough that her abdomen plates were quite separated from each other and it looked to me as if she had a giant set of bellows for a belly.
A Rear-View of Lady M
In this photograph you can also see some white powder on the branch to which Lady M is clinging. This is "herp powder" which is a special mix of multi-vitamins, used to dust the prey, in order to provide mantids (also used for pet lizards, turtles, and other insects) with optimal health.
The spaces between the plates on the abdomen are softer than the rest of the body, allowing expansion, contraction, and dextrous movements of the abdomen.
Lady M's Abdomen
Lady M's abdomen wasn't like our human belly at all, actually. She had great control of the muscles in her abdomen and they would often ripple and contract in different directions as she swung her cerci-tipped rostrum around in the air. She never met a mate during her lifetime, but just before she passed away (of old age) she put a huge burst of energy into laying a double ootheca on the roof of her cage. I was lucky enough to catch this process on camera, and even got some video of the event.
In doing some further research, I found out that the African praying mantis is not one of the species that can parthenogenetically reproduce. It seems likely that Lady M's body was reacting to the incredible abundance of food-supply and even though she had never been mated, it went through the motions of laying an egg-sac with no fertilized eggs within it: a sterile ootheca.
Lady M Decided to lay her second ootheca adjacent to the first.
For one week before the egg-laying, Lady M didn't eat any food. I became concerned at that point, since I had no idea what was about to happen. She had always been a voracious eater. I tried dangling crickets in front of her nose... but she just turned away from them and sat very still in her cage. Then I noticed that her abdomen was starting to contract in a rhythmic manner.
The moment when she started producing a thick brown foam from her abdomen, and then frothing it up with her highly mobile cerci, was one of powerful natural beauty.
As soon as I saw that happening, I scrambled for my camera and then spent the next few hours documenting her egg-laying process.
She was experiencing abdomenal contractions long before anything started coming out of her body. She took a careful hold of the cage and spread her arms out to their most open configuration. Then she began to make small circles with the tip of her abdomen, secreting the outer egg-sac insulative substance. In its initial state, this foam is quite soft, but it becomes exceptionally hard upon setting and it quite resistant to most forms of pressure and temperature. It is hard not to compare the process to many of the commercially available tubes of insulating foam that I have used to weather-proof my house.
As she was laying the eggs, Lady M would often press the tip of her abdomen onto the foam and then her tiny finger-like projections, called cerci, would with surprising dexterity manipulate the foam and create tiny channels and tunnels in it while building it up in a cylindrical manner. This is why the ootheca of the mantis ends up being slightly wider than the circumference of the female mantid's abdomen. This part of the process was difficult not to compare to the process of a human potter, buiding up a vase on a potting wheel and pulling it upwards with graceful fingers.
The mantis ootheca/eggsac is actually a wonderful piece of architecture, with variable numbers of individualized chambers for each nymph (ranging from 30 up to 600 plus), each chamber complete with birthing tunnels, and an escape hatch. The inner segments of the chamber and the nymph's membranous coating are edible, and the outer section is exceptionally durable, resistant to the elements including extreme cold and heat, and is intentionally coloured and positioned to camouflage with the environment.
The mantis female can attach the egg sac in any number of creative places and will select the location very specifically. In fact, some species of mantis, who are specially coloured to camouflage with their oothecae, will actually stay with the egg sac and guard it from potential predators until it hatches. The combination of mother and egg-sac is optimally coloured to blend into the background of the specific trees on which she lays the ootheca.
The moment in which the cluster of baby nymphs emerges from the ootheca is a precipitous burst and completes rapidly. Then the process of the nymphs freeing themselves from their 'harness' begins, with them all wriggling furiously, and those on the outsides getting out first. Most nymphs then climb up on top of the egg-sac, and survey the territory, before setting out and dispersing in all directions.
In this picture, the nymphs are just starting to burst out of the front of the ootheca.
In the end, after the birthing process of Lady M was done, there were two gorgeous, brown, cylindrical oothecae sitting side-by-side, permanently fixed to the roof of the terrarium. The second one was approximately half the size of the first, and she had laid them one after the other. For a week afterwards she sat around, as if exhausted by her endeavour. Still not eating. Then she ate a few crickets. And then a week later I found her lying on the bottom of the terrarium with her legs curled up and it became clear to me that she was deceased.
Lady M finished laying her second egg sac and died soon after.
As a final good-bye, I dissected her body. I can happily report that she was as fascinating and beautiful on the inside as on the outside. I thanked her for all of the things that she had taught me, and then said 'adieu'. Then I went out to the pet store a few weeks later and bought myself another nymph. I called her M2 (emToo).