A guide to keeping a praying mantis for those intrigued by these fascinating critters.
These are one of my favorite bugs that are a gardeners best friend. There are many different species of mantis, but I find the best one to keep as a pet is the Chinese mantis that was introduced into America. They are the biggest and easiest to handle. You can find them in most warm climates during the spring and summer. The main downside to keeping them as pets is that they only live about a year, but you can breed them or catch new ones every year. They make excellent pets for several reasons: they are fascinating creatures, they help keep pests under control, they get used to humans very quickly, and they dont need much when it comes to caring for them other than food.
If you live in an area that has a mantis population, the best place to find them is in a garden that hasnt been treated with chemicals. You will need to look hard; mantis are experts at camouflage because they are ambush predators. Mature mantises can fly, so I recommend bringing a butterfly net just in case. When you do find one, gently gather the little fellow up with the net, or even with your hands if you think you can, and place him in a jar with a stick in it for the mantis to cling to. If mantises dont live in your area, you can order their egg cases from several online stores which sell them for pest control purposes. Each egg case hold about 200 eggs, and you can get three of these cases for about $15.00, not a bad deal.
You dont need much to house a praying mantis. All they really need is food and water, but make sure you have a good lid and something for them to climb on. The critter carrying cases you can get at most pet stores are great for a mantis, because they can hang upside-down from the lids grating. Mantises dont need a lot of space, but you should put in some fake plant or twigs for them to climb on; they dont like being on the ground. You dont need to worry about heating lamps. Room temperature should do just fine.
Food and Water
Mantises are veracious and ravenous hunters. They can eat a mind boggling amount of food, especially a pregnant female. A mantis can eat anything smaller than itself, and sometimes things of the same size. They love crickets and grasshoppers, but you should mix up their diet a little. You should feed your mantis as much as it will eat. One of the main reasons you shouldnt put it in an overly large container is that it makes it harder for the mantis to find its food. Mantises are ambush predators that prefer to wait for food to come to them, but if they see a potential meal a short distance away, they will slowly walk over to it. If your mantis is used to you, it can be trained to take bits of meat from tweezers. As for water, a wet sponge and the occasional misting should give your mantis all the water it needs. They get most of their water from their food.
Mantises get used to people very fast, but they have been known to bite on rare occasions, so if you don’t trust your pet yet you can pick him up by grasping the back of the thorax (the long middle section of the body that the legs are attached to) once your pet gets used to you, you can let it crawl on your fingers and feed it with tweezers.
Due to their nature, it isn’t a good idea to keep mantises together because they will eat each other if they get hungry, but if you have a mature male and female, you can try putting them together after feeding both of them to see if they will mate. As long as the female has a full belly, she wont try to kill the male. Males are a bit smaller and thinner than females if you were wondering how to tell them apart. After you see them mate, separate them again and keep the female well fed. Eventually she will lay egg encased in a frothy foam that hardens into a cocoon. When the babies hatch, the case dissolves and about 200 babies emerge the size of small ants. They have no wings and will eat each other if you don’t separate them. If you do breed your pet, I recommend keeping a few males and females and releasing the rest into your garden. Females often die soon after matting.
Mantises are often bought by gardeners to control pests. Their veracious appetites make them excellent for this job, but pesticides will kill them! In china, some people tie a string around their pets thorax and keep it at the end of their bed where their pet can eat mosquitoes. Mature mantis have wings and can fly, but they only do so if they feel cornered, and it is more of a glorified jump than anything.