How to spot a Praying Mantis

Written by Lucy Brzoska

One way is to look out for unusual portents, unnatural juxtapositions, something that just doesn’t feel right.  Like an immobile upside-down butterfly.

This butterfly was not responding to the other Large whites visiting the sticky fleabane on this warm October day. A closer look revealed it was firmly in the grip of a Praying mantis, who was eating it head-first, delicately picking off the proboscis, like a delicacy to be savoured.

The discarded white wings fluttered to the ground, and the mantis became invisible again, merging perfectly with the plant stem.

Close encounter on Collserola: Dwarf mantis

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Illyrian thistles (Onopordum illyricum) are magnificent, even when all dried up.  By mid-summer their heads are like wicker baskets brimming with seeds.  When I looked inside one, something rapidly scuttled out on long thin legs, spider-like.  Then I noticed the curled abdomen, and thought it was a tiny Cone-head Mantis. But once it had stopped darting round to the opposite side of the thistle, I found its head was heart-shaped.

This female Dwarf Mantis, an Ameles species, probably A. spallanzania, has a plump curled abdomen that makes it look like a tiny rocking horse.

The mantis was minute, but just like its larger relative, it avidly monitored its surroundings and it repeatedly swivelled its head and trained its antennae in my direction.  When a colourful stink beetle walked by (Eurydema ornata), it instantly sprung from one thistle stem to another to get a better view, using the spines like the rungs on a ladder.

I wanted to stay and watch the mantis hunt, but the sun was rapidly going down. Reluctantly I left it there, a perfectly camouflaged speck on the hillside.

Close encounter on Montjuic: a Cone-head Mantis

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The prohibitively steep slope falls away to the ring road below, where traffic crawls day and night. This is the wildest, most inaccessible side of Montjuic, covered in grass, broom, the occasional stunted pine and mast-like agave cactus.  There are contrasting views of the colourful containers stacked in the port and the shining sea beyond.

On a warm, drowsy late October day I was wandering about on the edge of the hill side and noticed a delicate Green Lacewing perched on a stem. I was pushing aside the grass for a better view when suddenly a twisted bit of straw quivered and move away on all sixes.

cone-head-mantis-nymph-empusa-pennata

It was the legendary Cone-head mantis (Empusa pennata).  The last time I’d seen something so uncanny and brittle-looking was the skeleton army in Jason and the Argonauts.  Close up it seemed wizard-like, with the eyes of an alien.

pointed-head-of-a-cone-head-mantis

Coloured like dead plant matter, its camouflage was perfected by long, sharp-angled legs that repeated the criss-cross pattern of surrounding stems. It was a risk to look away even for a second – the diminutive mantis might merge back into the grass, never to be seen again.

cone-head-mantis-camouflage

Only about 3 cm-long, the creature was a nymph, as evidenced by its curled rutted “tail”.  If it survives, it’ll acquire a winged adult form next spring.  Other features that distinguish the Cone-head Mantis from the more commonly seen Praying Mantis, whose eggs hatch in spring, is a preference for smaller prey.  The females show no penchant for eating their mates.