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The Last Days of Summer, with Mantis

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Spring 2010 update: This post has been updated, with 99% of my rant on health care reform deleted, and with photos added (see bottom of post) of a baby mantis, child to the lovely brown maiden in the photo below. Soon, I will also add the old photos from last summer’s courtships which, for reasons I will later explain, had to be set aside.

mantis wings two

After spending the summer riveted to the unfolding tragedy of health care reform, I’ve decided to put my time, my blood, sweat and tears, my research skills, and my helplessness to better  use: explaining the enchanting beasts that have been summering on the moonflower vine outside our kitchen window.

Because, fact is, I’m just as helpless to explain human beings as I am powerless to effect the course of human events. As we’ve seen this summer, there are some human beings who — irrespective of their capacity to prayer — wouldn’t give a slug nickel to pay for a sick man to see a doctor, and who would even take to the streets in arms to prevent it. Yet, there are also human beings who — irrespective of their capacity for prayer —  innately revulse at the specter of inhumanity, whose stomachs curdle in the witness of violence and injustice, whose natures rebel against men and institutions that would reduce their fellow man to slave cargo, to a commodity, to chattel property, to vermin, to prey. I have no explanation for these discrepancies among Homo sapiens, unless it is that humans are innately endowed with different measures of selflessness. The same may very well be true of the Mantis, which I will presently explain.

Of Physiognomy

mantis green maiden

I considered all possible lenses through which to view these moonflower enchantresses — the poetic, the literary, the philosophical, the scientific. I finally settled on them all, turning the matter over to the authority on each and every of facet, Jean-Henri Fabre, the father of literary entomology.

It was Fabre who, during the 19th century, was born to this earth possessing the tongue of a poet, the soul of a philosopher, and an innate, yet uncanny fascination with insects. The scientific instrument has yet to be invented that could hope to replicate what Fabre saw with the naked eye. His gift to science endures today, not just because of the body of knowledge he left on the each insect he studied, but because, in his words, “I cause it [the insect] to be loved.”

It is important to understand that, unlike many scientists, Fabre did not travel the world to discover the exotic, but found it within the kingdom of his own backyard. Gathering his subjects from nearby fields and woods, he assembled a menagerie that included fantastical Great Peacock Moths, Pine Processionary Caterpillars, Sacred Beetles, Cicadas and that veritable tigress of the insect kingdom, the Praying Mantis, about whom he eloquently observed:

She is not without a certain beauty, in fact, with her slender figure, her elegant bust, her pale-green coloring and her long gauze wings. No ferocious mandibles, opening like shears; on the contrary, a dainty pointed muzzle that seems made for billing and cooing…. Alone among insects, the Mantis directs her gaze; she inspects and examines; she almost has a physiognomy.

But Fabre was no romantic. He was nothing, if not shrewd in his observation of the Mantis, whose mating habits, he said, went “beyond the wildest dreams of the most horrible imagination. I have seen it done with my own eyes,” he wrote, “and have not yet recovered from my astonishment.”

I find, by themselves, a horrible couple engaged as follows. The male, absorbed in the performance of his vital functions, holds the female in a tight embrace. But the wretch has no head; he has no neck; he has hardly a body. The other, with her muzzle turned over her shoulder continues very placidly to gnaw what remains of the gentle swain. And, all the time, that masculine stump, holding on firmly, goes on with the business!

Love is stronger than death, men say. Taken literally, the aphorism has never received a more brilliant confirmation. A headless creature, an insect amputated down to the middle of the chest, a very corpse persists in endeavouring to give life. It will not let go until the abdomen, the seat of the procreative organs, is attacked. — from the 1917 book, The Life of the Grasshopper(pg. 145) by J. Henri Fabre

I, myself, have never witnessed this act, although we have been watching the Praying Mantises outside the window since July — watching them tranform from thin-waisted maidens, to fat, egg-laden matrons. Ours are neither the European Mantis (Mantis religiosa) of Fabre’s laboratory, nor the giant Chinese Mantis (Tenodera sinensis) whose manners gave birth to the Praying Mantis school of kung fu in 17th century China. Those mantises are immigrants, which traveled to America aboard nursery stock roundabout the time of the Spanish-American War, and are now naturalized citizens. Our moon flower sisters are Carolina Mantises (Stagmomantis carolina), which are not only native to this land, but are the official State Insect of my home state, South Carolina.

The moon flower vine was not my first encounter with the Carolina Mantis. Several years ago, in another house, a she-Mantis lived in the Japanese ligustrum beside my front porch, where the two of us watched, in tandem, the passers-by. Here she is:

mantis katz

Isn’t she lovely?

She was my first day-to-day, up-close encounter with a Mantis — the first Mantis with whom I exchanged eye contact and experienced that ethereal thing that Mantises possess. Gazing (that’s what Mantises do, they gaze) at me with those eyes, perched atop a head capable of pivoting in a 180° arc, she watched me as I peered through the branches, trying to find the best angle for viewing her. She watched me; I watched her. In utter silence, and each for our own reasons, we gazed.

I do not understand how it is humanly possible to reduce her likeness to a snooze-fest, but I’m here to tell you that it is indeed possible. Compare the front legs (seen in ‘prayer’ in the earlier photograph above) with the photo, below, taken this summer. Then compare these photos to the following two descriptions — both quoted from scientific texts, and both hailing from respected men of science. Is it any mystery why the eyes of schoolchildren glaze over (or, alternately, spark to life) at the wonders of science?

The mantid’s forelegs are raptorial with elongated coxae and femora with the presence of opposed rows of spines on the femora and the tibiae. from the 1999 book,  The Praying Mantids(pg. 21), edited by Frederick R. Prete et al.

For Prete and company, that one sentence sufficed to describe these magnificent forelegs.

mantis foreleg detail

Not so for J. Henri Fabre:

Those arms, folded in prayer, are cut-throat weapons: they tell no beads, they slay whatever passes within range….  Great, indeed is the contrast between the body as a whole, with its very pacific aspect, and the murderous mechanism of the forelegs, which are correctly described as raptorial. The haunch is uncommonly long and powerful. Its function is to throw forward the rat-trap, which does not await its victim but goes in search of it. The snare is decked out with some show of finery….

The thigh, longer still, a sort of flattened spindle, carries on the front half of its lower surface two rows of sharp spikes. In the inner row there are a dozen, alternately black and green, the green being shorter than the black. This alternation of unequal lengths increases the number of cogs and improves the effectiveness of the weapon. The outer row is simpler and has only four teeth. Lastly, three spurs, the longest of all, stand out beneath the two rows. In short, the thigh is a saw with two parallel blades, separated by a groove in which the leg lies when folded back.

The leg, which moves very easily on its joint with the thigh, is likewise a double-edged saw. The teeth are smaller, more numerous and closer together than those on the thigh. It ends in a strong hook whose point vies the finest needle for sharpness, a hook fluted underneath and having a double blade like a curved pruning knife. …

When at rest, the trap is folded and pressed back against the chest and looks quite harmless. There you have the insect praying. But, should a victim pass, the attitude of prayer is dropped abruptly. Suddenly, unfolded, the three long sections of the machine throw to a distance their terminal grapnel, which harpoons the prey and, in returning, draws it back between the two saws. The vice closes with a movement like that of the forearm and upper arm; and all is over. Locusts, Grasshoppers and others even more powerful, once caught in the mechanism with its four rows of teeth, are irretrievably lost. Neither their desperate fluttering nor their kicking will make the terrible engine release its hold. — from The Life of the Grasshopper(pg. 115) by J. Henri Fabre

And so the long days and the short nights of summer have passed on the moon flower vine. I can only take Fabre’s word for what has commenced in the near-glow of our kitchen light. We’ve never witnessed it. Just the half-eaten remains the morning after — here and there a moth carcass, a scattering of legs and wings, a camel cricket reduced to mere junkyard salvage, its front-end picked of its choice parts, the headlights snatched from their sockets, its taut legs reduced to lifeless wires. Too, there’s been the steady growth of the two sisters, their appearance as different as night and day. One is colored the precise green of the moonflower stems, each of her wings marked with a single, dark eye-spot, called a stigma, which not only mimics leaf blemishes and stem scars, but — with a mere unfurling of her wings — can double as fierce eyes to startle and fend off potential attackers. The other Mantis wears a simple mottled brown frock that depends on the kindness of dead leaves for camouflage.

Both are no doubt responsible for the mysterious disappearance of the ant trails that boldy paraded up and down the vines during early summer, using the vines as a superhighway between the azaleas and the kitchen window, inside which the ants stole to smuggle the stray sugar granules scattered about the coffeepot. We owe the Mantises a debt of gratitude for putting an end to these night marauders, even as our gratitude is tinged with remorse for any Sphinx Moths we intentionally lured — to their deaths, as it turns out — by our decision to plant the moonflower vine in that precise location.

It is with a similar sadness that we see summer coming to a close. As each day of August winds to an end, we are one day closer to the conclusion of the Mantises’ life cycles. If they’ve not already done so, the femme fatales will release, any night now, their pheromones to draw the male Mantises — much smaller and thinner by comparison — which will fertilize the eggs that have so swollen their abdomens. Throughout the courtship season, each female may receive many gentleman callers. Contrary to popular myth, it is not a given that the male will be consumed during consummation. This practice varies greatly between Mantis species, with the European Mantis being more inclined to cannibalize her mate, and the Carolina Mantis being quite disinclined to do so — to the extent, in fact, that it rarely happens in the wild, unless she is very hungry.

In all cases, this practice is more common in captivity than in the field, where there is less likelihood of the artificial distractions and mis-directed visual cues, which are believed to scramble the sequence of events and trigger the predatory response in the female. Regardless of whether the male(s) survive mating, it will be only a week or so before the female lays the seeds of their progeny. These will be secreted inside a tan, meringue-like egg case, called an ootheca, which she will affix to nearby vegetation or structures. This foamy nest, about the size of a hickory nut, will quickly set to styrofoam-like texture, its myriad tiny air bubbles providing the perfect insulation for the neatly arranged catacomb of eggs inside. According to Fabre, “the whole thing demands about two hours of concentrated work, free from interruption.”

If this confection doesn’t become the foodstuffs of lizards, wasps or ants during autumn and winter, it will bloom, come next spring, with perhaps 300 hungry and often cannibalistic nymphs. The mother may or may not spend the balance of her life watching over her nest. Regardless, the laying of the eggs is the beginning of her swan song. Likely by the end of September, the beautiful enchantresses will be dead.

The Cyclopean Ear

The underside view of the brown Carolina Mantis as she crept up the window

The underside view of the brown Carolina Mantis as she crept up the window

I apologize that our rudimentary camera skills do not offer a better view of the Mantis’ fascinating ear. Our best efforts at photographing the Mantises (which you see on this page) are testament to my daughter’s persistence at overcoming — through sheer numbers — the mediocrity of blind luck. The single ear of the Mantis — which is unique to the Mantis kingdom and, even then, to only certain species — is located on the metathorax,  (look in the photo, left, for the pinkish, fleshy area of the belly between the two pairs of legs, punctuated at its base with a whitish tooth-shaped appendage, called a bifid horn or tooth, which is also part of the ear). This hearing organ — aptly called a cyclopean ear — has since been studied by scientists to determine both its purpose and the advantages to its odd location.

[As an aside, some Mantises (although I cannot confirm this in the Carolina Mantis) have a second cyclopean ear — a mesothoracic ear — located higher up  in the mesothorax, which is capable of hearing in lower ranges, below 10 kHz. I mention this because, to my eyes, there appears to a second ear structure in the photo, above. I would love to know more about this.]

In the female, the metothoracic cyclopean ear is little more than a vestigial organ — her hearing capacity diminished or entirely absent, as is the case with most, if not all, of the flightless mantids. Flighted males, on the other hand — who take to the air at night in search of the sirens’ pheromone perfume  — need this ear to evade bats, one of their most formidable predators. As such, this ear is set to detect frequencies between 25-60 kHz with thresholds of 50 to 60 decibels— the precise range of bat echolations. At the first hint of this ultrasonic tuning fork, the Mantis stalls mid-flight like a disabled bi-plane, instantly lowering his wings, sending himself into a freefall spiral toward the ground. Being a single ear, it lacks the stereo perception necessary to pinpointing the direction of the sound.

green mantis cerciNot so with the cerci. Both male and female Mantises (as well as myriad other insects) own a certain capacity for hearing through their cerci, that pair of beaded, antenna-like appendages near the very tip of their rear. Unlike the cylopean ear, designed to hear bats from a relative distance, the cerci are equipped to detect  ‘near-field’ sounds — from the arrival of a suitor, to the arrival of prey or, alternately, a predator. In females, the cerci are also used in the delicate frothing and shaping of the ootheca.  Studies suggest that the cerci also aid the flighted Mantis in fine-tuning the location of the bat.

I can offer little more scientific know-how on the topic of hearing, having already suffered through reading what little scientific study has been done on both the cyclopean ear and the cerci– all of which I’ve read with the sort of gut pain a mother feels in seeing her child bleed — as the laboratory study of these auditory organs invariable involves barbaric procedures, with much cutting and slitting of the Mantis’s body, including fullscale amputations and decapitations. From this point, the Mantis is then wired with various sensors, and its hearing organs coated withwax or Vaseline, before being tethered in a room, to see how it interacts with a bat. If only Fabre were still alive, to tutor these scientists in the art of benign observation.

You rip up the animal and I study it alive; you turn it into an object of horror and pity, whereas I cause it to be loved; you labour in a torture-chamber and dissecting room, and I make my observations under the blue sky to the song of the Cicadas, you subject cell and protoplasm to chemical tests, I study instinct in its loftiest manifestations; you pry into death, I pry into life. — J. Henri Fabre, from “The Harmas” in The Life of the Fly (1913)

Unlike the cyclops ear — the acuity of which increases, as a rule, in direct proportion to the wing-length — the cerci seem to exist in equal measure, regardless of flight abilities or gender. It appears that the cerci work in conjunction with the Mantis’ eyes for surveying the surroundings. Mantises have five eyes in all:  two large compound eyes with stereoscopic, color vision, that are adept at gauging distance, plus three simple eyes, called ocelli. Located in a triangular formation between the antennae, the ocelli are larger and better developed in males, and are believed to aid in discerning between light and dark. (NOTE: to see excellent images of these eyes, plus the source for this information, click here: cirrusimage.com)

Even as the Mantis has excellent eyesight — capable of both sharp, near-distance vision, and the ability to detect movement up to 60 feet away —  its compound eyes command only a 300° field of vision —  just 60° shy of encompassing a full circle. It makes sense, then, that the Mantis would need compensation for this built-in blind spot, the cerci being the equivalent of the back-up alarm used in modern vehicles. That males and female, alike, have well-developed cerci lends credence to the theory that the primary purpose of these organs is to alert the Mantis to approaching prey and predators in the bush, which is where the female Carolina Mantis spends the majority of her life.

This is because the wings of the female Carolina Mantis, in contrast to the male, are of little use for flying. Arriving late in life (only after her final molt, the last of 7 to 10 molts she undergoes over her lifetime) these wings are too short for real flight, and of no use once her belly becomes too cumbersome for such lofty aspirations. The important thing, however, is not what she can’t do, but what she can do with these exquisite parasails.

mantis wings unfurled and spittle bug

An August Affair

The morning we took the above picture, our attention had been drawn from our morning routines in the kitchen to the startling sight of the brown Mantis outside — her barbed forelegs waving about in a most un-prayerful manner, her wings unfurled like an exotic bird of paradise. Something was the matter. As you can see — whatever the matter — it was pressing enough to render the nearby spittle bug inconsequential. The two Mantises spent the balance of the morning moving about the vine, much like boxers in a ring — only they inched further and further apart until, at last, the brown one removed herself entirely from the equation — creeping, brick by brick, away from the vine and up the side of the window frame until she reached the top, where she took up residence.

From my reading, I suspect that the two sisters were involved in a standoff, which is not uncommon in mid to late August, as the females bellies become swollen with eggs. Witnessing this behavior in his laboratory, Fabre wondered if this were unique to confined females, or if it also occurred in the wild. Regardless, he kept his charges well-fed during this life stage, so that “should civil war break out, famine cannot be pleaded as the excuse.” Fabre’s description of this mysterious affair deserves reading:

At first, things go pretty well. The community lives in peace, each Mantis grabbing and eating whatever comes near her, without seeking strife with her neighbours. But this harmonious period does not last long. The bellies swell, the eggs are ripening in the ovaries, marriage and laying-time are at hand. Then a sort of jealous fury bursts out, although there is an entire absence of males who might be held reponsible for feminine rivalry. The working of the ovaries seems to pervert the flock, inspiring its members with a mania for devouring one another. There are threats, personal encounters, cannibal feasts. Once more, the spectral pose appears, the hissing of the wings, the fearsome gesture of the grapnels outstretched and uplifted in the air….

For no reason that I can gather, two neighbours suddenly assume their attitude of war. They turn their heads to the right and left, provoking each other, exchanging insulting glances. The “Puff! Puff!” of the wings rubbed by the abdomen sounds the charge….

Then one of the grapnels, with a sudden spring, shoots out to its full length and strikes the rival; it is no less abruptly withdrawn and resumes the defensive. The adversary hits back…. At the first blood drawn from her flabby paunch, or even before receiving the least wound, one of the duellists confesses herself beaten and retires. The other furls her battle-standard and does off elsewhither to mediate the capture of a Locust, keeping apparently calm, but ever ready to repeat the quarrel.

Very often, event take a more tragic turn. At such times, the full posture of the duels to the death is assumed. The murderous fore-arms are unfolded and raised in the air. Woe to the vanquished! The other seizes her in her vice and then and there proceeds to eat her, beginning at the neck, of course.

If the green Mantis ever responded in kind — unfurling the fury of her battle regalia toward the brown Mantis — we missed it.  To our observation, she never changed her prayerful pose, but instead moved carefully about the vine, her intent appearing to be no more complex than to keep a safe distance from the brown Mantis. During this fracas, she did something she never does — haplessly straying from the safety of her camouflage into bold sight, backdropped by tan brick.

The green Mantis on the morning of the fight. Note the dark eye-spot of the stigma on her neatly-folded wing.

The green Mantis on the morning of the fight. Note the dark eye-spot of the stigma on her neatly-folded wing.

An Inexplicable Peace

Long before the morning of the spat, I’d gone out to the moonflower vine to check up on the green Mantis. Until that morning, we were oblivious to the existence of the brown Mantis, even as we’d spent many long spells gazing into the leaves, tracing every inch of the vines to locate the green Mantis. Not so on this particular July morning. Right there, in plain sight on the face of the vine was the green Mantis, poised beside a molted skin — or so I thought — which was hanging upside-down from a stem. Doing something we humans are never supposed to do to an actively molting Mantis (because it can damage the Mantis) I touched the skin and — to my shock — it moved! The skin quivered, as if being stroked by a small breeze, only there was none. Looking closer, I realized that this was not the departed skin of the green Mantis, but a second Mantis, in the process of molting. I wondered, at the time, about the green Mantis’ presence. Not knowing any better, I wondered: Was this her mate?

Learning the answer to this question (“no”) only bred more questions — especially this: Why didn’t she just eat the brown Mantis? Helpless and vulnerable, her molting sister couldn’t have been easier prey. It would have been effortless for the green one to reach over with a barbed hook and *yawn* snag the brown Mantis. Yet, she didn’t. Even more intriguing is this: If she wasn’t there to prey — as is the greatest supplication at this life stage of the Mantis — why was she there?

Oh, the fierce beasts! exclaimed Fabre. They say dog does not eat dog. The Mantis has no scruples; she feasts on her fellows even when her favourite food, the cricket, is plentiful around her.

Yet, my impression at the time was that she was watching over the brown Mantis, as if to protect it. But why would she do this? What’s in it for her? I was unable to find the answer — not in the annals of Fabre, nor in more recent entomological studies. I only know that I’ve never again seen the two in such close proximity. Quite the contrary. Even before the morning of the spat, the two maintained fairly separate zones within the moonflower jungle.

The brown Carolina Mantis in the early stage of molting

The brown Carolina Mantis in the early stage of molting. The withered, dead moonflower leaf, to the left, offers a nice camouflage. I regret not including the green Mantis, who spent the majority of the following several hours gazing from a leaf to the near right.

My best scientific guess is that, at that particular life stage — unlike the nymph stage, egg-laden stage, and the mating stage, all of which are prone to acts of cannibalism — there is some compulsion to preserve the species.

Alternately, there may be aspects of a Mantis’ nature (even if it’s nothing grander than the capacity for idle curiosity) that cannot be measured, no matter how precisely the scientist learns to slice open their bodies, no matter what the sensitivity of our tools and instruments. While human technology has evolved to the extent we can dissect human thought by tracing the complex transactions between our body chemistry and our nervous systems, no tool has yet been devised that can quantify the contents of the human soul, much less qualify them. The same may be true of any creature on the earth. We just don’t know.

The Animal That Prays to God

The subjects of Fabre’s lab, Mantis religiosa, were known to the country folk as lou Prego-Dieu, which translates to “the animal that prays to God.” Fabre seemed somewhat amused by their naiveté on the habits of the Mantis.

Peasants are not particular about resemblances. They saw a stately-looking insect standing majestically on the sun-grilled grasses. They noticed her large delicate green wings hanging about her like a linen veil and her front feet, her hands so to speak, raised to heaven as if she prayed. That was enough for them; the thickets were peopled with prophetesses and nuns in prayer!

Humans seem to have been similarly named. The nomenclature, Homo sapiens, or ” wise man” presumes much.  While it is true that, compared to other animals, our brains allow us specific capacities for abstract reasoning, language, artistic expression and a sophisticated use of tools, the term, “wise” implies that we, as a species, have somehow been elevated from the thick-skulled constraints of Homo erectus — as if there were more than window-dressing to our ability to wear a fine pair of trousers.

This is some of what I’ve been pondering this summer while watching the enchanting beasts on the moonflower vine, backdropped by the unfolding carnage of the health care reform battles.  The idea that a sick person with no money in her pocket might be allowed, under law, the basic right to receive medical care has compelled an inexplicable rage among many Americans, some of whom have murder in their hearts. Acting alone or en masse, they’ve taken to the streets, to corporate boardrooms, to the Senate chambers and raised their jagged mandibles against the most vulnerable members of our society.

Witnessing this has been, as Fabre wrote, “beyond the wildest dreams of the most horrible imagination. I have seen it done with my own eyes, and have not yet recovered from my astonishment.”

I’ve decided that it boils down to this: There are some human beings whose natures  — irrespective of the presence or absence of any god — compel them to reduce their fellow man to slave cargo, to commodities, to chattel property, to vermin, to prey. To these people, liberty is a quaint notion over which they claim sole proprietorship, and to which they pay homage through pious rituals and lofty bromides. Only, we human beings have evolved to such a state that we can hardly blame brutality on instinct. I have no explanation for such human behavior, unless it’s that human souls are innately endowed with different measures of selflessness. The same may very well be true of the Mantis which, in my mind, I’ve adequately explained.

_____________________________

by Mantis Katz for the canarypapers

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UPDATES SPRING 2010

May 19, 2010: There was more to the story of the mantises last autumn, but it saddened me so that I had to walk away from it. I can tell it now. Shortly after finishing this post, the suitors arrived. The photos, (which I will soon hunt down and add), tell the story. But only up to a point. The last time we saw the green mantis, she was with her sweetheart. The two of them had chosen, of all places, to become engaged in the middle of the tan brick wall. Lovely green mantis, tan wall. We never saw her again. The brown mantis, on the other hand,  lived out her entire natural life, which lasted through the month of September. She left behind two egg cases, each neatly camouflaged in the mortar alleys between the brick. Today, a tiny little being with legs not much bigger than the hair on a human arm sprung into our lives — seemingly out of nowhere, but within only a few feet from the old moonflower vines — and landed midway down my son-in-law’s terminal grapnel.

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