I was gathering all the necessary items to bring into my son Joe’s preschool class for his “birthday week” extravaganza:
“Manuelo the Playing Mantis” book to read aloud? Check. Praying mantis “hat” craft kits for all 25 students? Check. Praying mantis cupcakes? Check.
And the pièce de résistance—a real live praying mantis egg case for “Show and Share”! (Yes, I was one of THOSE parents.) The egg case, I thought, was a stroke of genius. Joe and I would raise a praying mantis to adulthood, revel in the wonder of nature, release it in the summer and watch it regally fly away to return to its rightful home in the wild. Kind of like “Born Free” but with antennae and long, jointed front legs.
According to my mother, who was not impressed with my plans, “It used to be a felony to kill a praying mantis. (Dramatic pause…) It may still be.” Little did she know that her only daughter would soon be a criminal.
The cover of the “Raise Your Own Praying Mantis” kit showed a cartoonish rendition of a very hip, smiling, Wayfarer-sunglasses wearing mantis. Didn’t fool me. I was duped once by the “Sea Monkeys” advertising campaign, broke open my piggy bank, sent in my life’s savings, only to find they were NOT wearing clothes, carrying briefcases, nor exceedingly happy… and they sure didn’t resemble any monkey that I was familiar with.
The “Praying Mantis Day” at preschool went off without a hitch, until the following morning.
I had carefully read over (really, just glanced) at the instruction manual, confident in the fact that the egg case wouldn’t hatch until spring. Since it was February, I had nothing to worry about. I would have plenty of time to make ready my “mantis nursery” — complete with mobile and tiny little crib — before the little guy made his arrival.
I should have known better. I placed the egg case in Joe’s plastic see-through backpack (Joe loved seeing all his school supplies at all times), hung it on the wall near a sunny window, and left it there all day, essentially creating a greenhouse. The following morning, I glanced over and saw that not one, but a swarm of praying mantis nymphs (for all those who failed 7th grade Life Science, a nymph is a young insect that has almost the same form as an adult) decided to make their arrival a month early and were crawling inside a backpack filled with papers, LEGOs and preschool artwork.
After a few moments of pandemonium and disgust, I hatched my own plan. I frantically read over the instruction manual and discovered, written in fine print, that not one, but around 75 praying mantises hatch out of one egg case. It was also recommended that I only raise one and release all the rest into the wild to fend for themselves. I would have, but it was still winter and they wouldn’t have survived.
Reading further, I discovered that I couldn’t just put them all in one container and feed them, as they are cannibalistic and turn on each other when hungry. These were not your ordinary bugs.
My mother had given me her old spice rack (complete with jars filled with spices dating back to the Eisenhower administration) and I thought that would do nicely. So now I had 25 little jars to hold my new family. I dumped out all the spices, carefully placed one tiny mantis in each jar, added a half a Q-Tip dipped in water for the necessary hydration, and topped each one with a piece of fine netting held in place with a ponytail holder.
The less fortunate mantises got a quick “Good luck out there, and remember, eat each other only if necessary!” speech and were tossed out the front door. My murder count had begun — 50 mantises killed with my own hands, although I am sure the authorities would have never found the bodies.
Further reading of the manual revealed that these little guys (I found it easier to call them “guys,” they just didn’t seem very feminine at all) eat fruit flies. Feeding one praying mantis fruit flies is tedious… trying to feed 25 is a full-time job.
After a few days, I was on a first-name basis with the PetSmart staff. I was one of the “regulars,” coming in to purchase a few containers of fruit flies every few days or so.
By the end of the following week, I managed to over-water 10 mantises, drowning them in tiny pools of rosemary, cumin, cream of tartar, basil and oregano-flavored water. The death count was up to 60, and the live ones, who were not exactly thriving under my care, were down to 15. I let out a little sigh of relief. I hated to see them die, but I was losing sleep and quite a bit of money running this insect nursery.
My husband was growing tired of them as well. One night I shook him awake at 2 a.m., panicked because I forgot to feed my fellas. Rushing downstairs, I shrieked as I saw five of the bottles turned on their side, and the mantises inside smashed flat by Q-Tips. My screams of anguish turned to rage as my husband meekly admitted he moved the jars off the dining room table to make room for dinner. Dead mantises — 65, live ones — 10.
Now at least I had a manageable number to care for. And it was getting interesting, as they were getting bigger and I was looking forward to watching them grab the flies out of mid-air and bite the heads clean off, the unwanted little fruit fly wings littering the bottom of their jars.
When they outgrew their tiny spice jar condos, I upgraded their diet to crickets and moved them into plush quart-size mason jars.
One early morning I saw that three of them were a deathly shade of pale gray, and very, very still. More death at the insectarium. Hoping to hide the evidence from Joe, I quickly slid them out of their jars and dumped them in the garbage can, smashing their bodies with an audible crunch. I grieved for the appropriate length of time, then conducted more on-line research.
“If I had an ounce of patience, I would have researched BEFORE crushing them to death under Salisbury steak TV dinner boxes.”
I was overcome by a wave of nausea and sadness as I discovered the answer. Turns out that mantises (and all insects) have an exoskeleton and molt as they increase in size, busting out of their old skin. If I had an ounce of patience, I would have researched BEFORE crushing them to death under Salisbury steak TV dinner boxes. Had I left them alone for a day or so, they would have been just fine.
The remaining seven grew, molted, grew some more, molted, complained about their jars being so small, and ate their share of any insects Joe and I threw in — grasshoppers, crickets, moths, flies, whatever. It was a wonderful time, watching them sway back and forth then with lightning-quick speed, lunge and devour their prey, chewing at the prey’s neck, usually eating it head-first. Violent, but truly awesome to behold.
A dragonfly was the only insect that proved impossible to eat. It twirled and spun around like a majorette’s baton near the mantis, who was futilely searching for a juicy spot to chomp. The mantis ended up just throwing it across the jar in disgust. It escaped — dizzy but alive.
Three months into this adventure, I was tired of the feeding, watering and the responsibility. I figured they were teenagers now— the (compound) eye rolls, tiny little insect sighs and stooped shoulders were dead giveaways— and I was ready to let three of them go, and raise the rest to adulthood.
My aphid-infested rose bush appeared to be a perfect home, as it provided hundreds of juicy aphids to eat and a nice view of my kitchen window where they could wave to me as I did the dishes.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out that ants run a protection racket (or maybe an extortion racket) with the aphids. Aphids secrete a sugar-rich sticky liquid called honeydew that the ants just love to lap up. The aphids tolerate this “milking” humiliation, and in exchange the ants protect the aphids from any predators. After being gently and lovingly relocated to my dying rose bush, hundreds of very angry ants swarmed Charlie, Owen and Andrew (all were named now) in seconds. I tried in vain to brush the ants off the three black squirmy shapes that formerly were my mantises, but they were quickly dragged away, their lifeless bodies now the lunch and dinner for the Mafioso ants. I was clearly failing as a foster parent.
The remaining survivors were three males and one female. I thought for a short time of putting them all together and watching the sexual tension, the mating and the subsequent decapitations, but I thought it might be a bit much for Joe’s preschool brain to handle.
In late July, we released Cecilia, Max, Johnny and Bob, the remaining four adult mantises. Joe and I did manage to revel in the wonder of nature, as they really are beautiful, impressive insects. After we opened their cages, I stood on the back deck in the afternoon sun, my arms around my son’s shoulders, watching them gracefully fly away, seemingly ecstatic to leave the “house of death” that was their first home. It was a perfect ending to a not-so-perfect adventure.
I am still plagued by this nagging feeling that someday I will answer my front door to find my mother “The Snitch” flanked by two stony-faced policemen, who will ask me to “just answer a few routine questions about some insects that were under my care.”
So far that hasn’t happened, but I did get a list of “sympathetic” lawyers from the Mafioso ants. Just in case.
My defense strategy? Plead insanity.