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.

Autumn colours in Collserola

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Though its woods are mainly evergreen, Collserola is livid with colour in the autumn. Blue-violet Rosemary flowers hum densely with bees, and yellow Mediterranean gorse shines against the rich blue sky of San Martín. As if decorated for Christmas, the Strawberry trees are hung with glowing red and orange fruit and clusters of bell-shaped flowers, creamy white like candles.

rosemary-bush-and-strawberry-tree

I found a Praying Mantis in almost exactly the same spot as last year, lightly clinging to a Narrow-leaved Cistus.  It had a contented post-meal air, probably having dined on the bees in the Rosemary bush next door. After cleaning them, it neatly folded its spiky “arms” and remained motionless.

praying-mantis-mantis-religiosa-cleans-itself

Under the dense Holm oak canopy, in the dark, boar-raked mulch, knots of scarlet tentacles emerge:  Latticed Stinkhorns (Clathrus ruber), or in Catalan Guita de Bruixa – “Witch’s Vomit”. A fungal wonder, it attracts flies with its rotten stench to act as spore-dispersers.

latticed-stinkhorn-clathrus-ruber

From a fallen tree comes the sound of Pekin Robins – or Red-Billed Leiothrix – who are hiding among the dried branches and leaves. This escapee cagebird, native to the jungles of Southern Asia, feels at home in Collserola, with its overgrown gullies and impenetrable tangles of creepers and brambles.

When disturbed they can’t seem to control their curiosity. One by one, Pekin Robins begin emerging from the dead tree to get a closer look at the intruder, all the time scolding vigorously. I got a noisy close-up of coral-red bills, yellow throats and bright black eyes.   With a steadily expanding population, their colonisation of other areas in Catalonia is imminent.

leiothrix-lutea-pekin-robin-in-collserola

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.