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October 19, 2003

Mantis religiosa

On Friday night I went to the front yard to water the garden, and found a preying mantis on the coil hose. Startled, it jumped onto my pant leg.

My garden is several things. It's a collection of plants I find irresistible at the moment of purchase. It's a source of Cretan oregano, red Chesnok garlic, Egyptian onions and other vegetables not obtainable through the supermarket. It's a way of clothing the altered earth of this old subdivision in soothing green and shocking orange. It's a way to spook the lawnmowing neighbors.

But most importantly to this story, it's a place where I try to choreograph the uncontrollable pas de milliers of sun, wind, plant and animal, to nudge things in one direction or another and see what the crazy syncopation of miroclimates and predator-prey cycles does from the starting point I provide. To that end, I thought the mantis would be best placed in the backyard, away from some of the marauding cats and better able to feast on the well-irrigated insects of the vegetable garden.

By the time I got through the house to the back garden, it had climbed to my shoulder, and then down my arm. I put it on a flowering African blue basil. It was still there this afternoon, stalking the honeybees.

This afternoon was bright. I spent a few minutes caulking the south wall of the shed, and spent a few more rigorously field-testing the sleeping bag I bought today - in other words, taking a quick nap on the lawn. It was a good afternoon, and the sun quickly drove away the consumptive demons that had lodged in my brain while shopping.

From the comfort of my sleeping bag I watched the mantis for a while, its head sharply pivoting as bees drew close, gauging every perceived motion for the meal-worthiness of the mover. The sudden head-cocking in the direction of potential prey seemed an oddly threatening gesture. I felt a moment of sympathy for the next hapless bug to cross the mantid's path.

A bit later, sitting on the porch with Becky, we saw a flurry of movement in the basil. The mantis had caught a small orange skipper butterfly. We ran to watch. The butterfly's wings kept fluttering for two or three minutes as the mantis slowly, methodically ate its head. The mantis' abdomen heaved with the effort, pumping air to replenish the oxygen spent in the sudden burst of motion.

An hour later, the mantis was nowhere to be seen. Two adjacent basil leaves held pale, thin offerings of butterfly wings, fallen where the predator had dropped them, shards of dusty orange catching the last few rays of evening sun.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 19, 2003 09:43 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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I loved watching the praying mantis with you, Chris. Seeing a mantis egg case "hatch", as a child, is still one of the highlights of my naturalist-life.

Posted by: beth at October 20, 2003 07:02 PM
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Chris: I found a praying mantis on my bike-trike the other day, hitching a ride into campus with me. I put it in among the marigolds. I've never actually seen one catch something--lucky you!

Posted by: Pica at October 21, 2003 06:35 AM
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I WATCHED a mantis all summer long in a christmas type tree.she started watching me it was the coolist thing not only did I see her catch bee's and eat them I saw her eat a male ,all that's is left is a boney little skeleton.

Posted by: margaret at November 26, 2004 06:25 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs