On an October visit to southern Spain my wife was confronted by a large green insect clinging to the back of her chair, a predatory looking creature with front legs raised as though about to pounce. It was a praying mantis (pictured), only the second she had ever seen and brought back memories of a rather more traumatic encounter more than forty years previously.
On that first occasion, scarcely two hours after we had arrived in Kano in northern Nigeria, where I was to begin a teaching contract, a similar praying mantis had landed on the head of our younger son, then just four months old. My wife did not know whether it could bite or sting him and it certainly did not look benign. It was a strange welcome to the tropics!
In fact they are harmless to humans although as far as other insects are concerned they are deadly ambush predators. Their name derives from their stance, with front legs folded in front of their head, resembling a person in prayer.
The front legs are used to catch prey, usually flies, butterflies, grasshoppers and other fair-sized insects. The strongly spined legs are shot out at great speed and snapped shut around the prey which the mantis then devours using its very strong, sharp mandibles, usually starting with the head.
They do not always restrict themselves to insects and have been known to pounce on very small lizards and there are accounts from North America of them grabbing for hummingbirds coming to sugar feeders.
This Spanish mantis flew to the ground where I watched as an ant walked up and inspected one of its legs. The mantis paid it no attention and the ant wandered away, oblivious to its brush with death.
Mating in mantises is sometimes compared to that of spiders as in some instances the female, which is larger than the male, will eat the male after or even during mating, starting by biting off his head. The mating action of the headless male apparently continues.
It has been postulated that, as the male is only likely to mate once during his short life of a couple of weeks and that as his main concern is to pass on his genes to the next generation, the sacrifice of his life is not in vain for he provides the female with an immediate meal that will help in the development of the eggs.
A gruesome but fascinating theory, it gives a new slant to the idea of “biting someone’s head off.”