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.

Iberian Blue-tailed Damselflies on Montjuic

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Large flocks of Blue-tailed damselflies (Ischnura graellsii) emerge from the ponds in Montjuic’s Jardins de Verdaguer.  They’re so tiny that in flight often all you can make out is a quivering blue blob.  When they settle, the spot of blue turns out to be the tail end of an endless abdomen (segment 8, to be precise).

the-tiny-iberian-blue-tailed-damselfly-ischnura-graellsii

Throughout the month of June the Blue-tails are harvested by House sparrows.  Bills bristling with wings,  the sparrows somehow manage to keep on collecting without dropping any of the existing catch.  You can imagine their nestlings getting fat on plentiful damselfly protein.

house-sparrow-hunts-for-damselflies-in-the-pond

By the end of July, the pond vegetation is full of Tree frogs (Hyla meridionalis),  perching motionless alongside the Blue-tails.  I found one very slowly ingesting its meal, till it seemed to be champing on a blue-tipped cigar.  One tremendous gulp and the rest was engulfed.

tree-frog-hyla-meridionalis-eats-bluetailed-damselfly-ischnura-graellsii

Food chains are long and complex.  Damselflies hunt small flies . . .

cannibalism-in-blue-tailed-damselfies-female-eats-teneral

. . . and each other.  As the sunlight broke free of the early morning clouds, it stirred the damsels from their resting places. A newly emerged Blue-tail on its maiden flight was immediately snatched, hoisted up and devoured by a mature female.

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.

Mediterranean autumn

Written by Lucy Brzoska

A Praying Mantis was ensconced in the Sticky Fleabane with a bee in its claws.  It was delicately eating a leg, still sprinkled with fresh pollen, before neatly detaching a wing.  Instead of bright green, like all the mantises I’ve ever seen, this one was a dull khaki colour.  As it chewed, its plump, segmented abdomen pulsed in a rippling movement.  The whole of the body seemed to be concentrated on digesting the bee.

praying-mantis-eats-bee

While watching the Mantis, I could hear the liquid notes of robin song.  The woods and parks fill up with migrating robins in the autumn.  As the season moves on, they seem to disperse, but for a while the whole of Collserola vibrates with robins tic-ticking from every bush.

Bee eaten, the Mantis fastidiously cleaned its weapons.  Suspended between the Sticky Fleabane on one side and gorse on the other, it faced the sky as if lying in a hammock.  When I left, it was still absorbed in polishing its spiky forelegs.

praying-mantis-grooming-after-meal

Inside the woods, it was warm and humid.  After weeks of drought, a typically intense two-day downpour had washed away the summer dust. Seizing the moment, plants were regenerating their leaves. Boar mud-baths were restored. Bark had turned velvety with moss.  Stones at the side of the path were covered in lichen: a mass of goblets if you looked close.

lichen-in-collserola

A fresh crop of puffballs had sprouted in the middle of the path, tender, fragrant and good to eat.  Soon they will age, turn brown and let out a puff of spores.  They’ve been given some great names: the Devil’s Snuffbox and Wolf’s Fart.

common-puffball-lycoperdon-perlatum

Coming down the hill at dusk, the Praying Mantis was still in the same spot, eating the last bee of the day.

Autumn Bugs: hide and seek

At the road side near Vallvidrera, a cellulose gymnast was swinging through the stems. If you’ve grown up thinking of Stick insects as exotic pets kept in glass containers, it’s a thrill to find them ranging free. They look fragile, but can re-grow a damaged limb after a moult.

Another plant imitator, the Praying mantis (Mantis religiosa), is quite visible in Collserola in October. Like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, this elegant specimen couldn’t take its eyes away from the camera.

The black spots, which look eerily like pupils, are an effect of light reflecting from the compound eyes. The mantis also has three “simple” eyes between the antennae that act as an auxilliary light metre. With its swivelling neck and stereoscopic vision, there’s not much that goes on unnoticed around a Praying mantis.

From camouflage to aposematism – currently every Wild carrot nest has a Striped shieldbug (Graphosoma lineatum) inside. Experiments have confirmed that the colouring of these bugs helps predators remember their bad taste. As if testing out the theory themselves, they are often in prominent positions on the top of plants.

Its vivid red and black colouring probably saved this Firebug (Pyrrhocoris apterus) in Palau de Pedralbes park. Climbing up the rocks, it stumbled onto a sunbathing Wall lizard. After assessing the situation, it hurriedly changed direction. The lizard watched, but made no move.