What do you get if you cross a praying mantis with a termite? An insect that says grace before it eats your house! OK… so that’s an old joke, but we still like it!
The praying mantis doesn’t say grace, and it doesn’t really pray. So how did it come by its unique name?
If you’ve ever seen a picture of a praying mantis (or a live one close-up), you probably noticed its front legs, which are bent and held at an angle that makes it look like the insect is praying. This peculiar posture is what gave these insects their unique name.
Mantises are part of the scientific order Mantodea, which contains more than 2,200 species in 15 different scientific families. Most of these species are in the scientific family Mantidae, so you’ll sometimes hear these insects referred to as praying mantids. However, it’s perfectly fine to call them all mantises, too.
In Europe, the name “praying mantis” refers to one specific species: Mantis religiosa. This insect made its way to the United States in 1899 in a shipment of plants.
It now can be found all over the country. Despite not being native to the United States, it’s the official state insect of Connecticut!
Sometimes people misspell “praying mantis” as “preying mantis.” “Preying” mantis might actually be more appropriate, though, since the praying mantis can be a ferocious predator.
Praying mantises are carnivorous insects. That means they eat other insects — and sometimes even small reptiles or birds — instead of plants.
Their triangular heads feature five eyes — two big compound eyes with three simple eyes between them — and can swivel 180 degrees to search for prey. They use their brown or green coloring to camouflage themselves on plants, waiting for moths, crickets, flies, grasshoppers and other insects to come their way.
When an insect gets close enough, they use their front legs to capture their prey. They move so quickly that it can be difficult to see with the naked eye. Their legs also have small spikes that help them hold prey in place.
Other insects aren’t the only praying mantis prey, though. Praying mantises are also well-known for their notorious mating behavior. Adult female praying mantises often eat their mates (adult male praying mantises) after — or sometimes during — mating!
Although praying mantises resemble stick-like insects or grasshoppers or crickets, their closest relatives are actually termites and cockroaches. So maybe that old joke wasn’t so far off the mark after all!