Now, before you jump to the defense of those adorable praying mantis, let me assure you that I love them, too. When you see them with their (deadly) forelegs clasped together as if in prayer, the first thought is that they are praising the Lord, and perhaps they are giving thanks for a yummy meal. However, it is those spiked forelegs that the mantis uses to grab and hold its victim. (Oddly enough, its closest relatives are cockroaches and termites, though I would think most people find the mantis a bit more appealing!)
Mantis are predatory creatures and only eat food they catch themselves, though they are kept as pets. Their prey includes scorpions, lizards, birds (sad, but true, they do like baby birds), fish, frogs, snakes, and rodents. They use camouflage to ambush their prey. In fact, I first learned about the predatory habits of the mantis when I spotted one on a vine on my bedroom patio where small birds liked to build their nests. This particular Praying Mantis was a mix of brown and green camo colors and blended right in with Texas!
My young neighbor was visiting my house in Kingsland, Texas that day. I stepped onto my patio to fetch something when I noticed the mantis. I ran to fetch my camera and tell her about the fascinating bug. She shook her head and told me they were "vicious killers!" At first, I thought she was kidding, then she explained that she had just finished watching a video about their eating habits in her science class at school. I photographed the mantis, then moved it closer to the creek, away from the baby birds.
A few months later I was in nearby Marble Falls, Texas when I noticed a very tiny, baby blue creature on a plant. I was fascinated by its beauty and ran for my camera. Something told me not to try and pick it up--strange bugs can sometimes leave strange bites! When I downloaded the photos I was suddenly grateful for the wisdom not to touch the creature--it had a large hook, called a probiscus, protruding from its chin! I contacted many of my usual resources trying to identify the creature, to no avail. This morning, however, I received an email from mantispets.com--they had a name for my baby blue mystery bug! This beautiful little creature is called a Wheelbug, and it's in a class of bugs called--get ready for this one--the ASSASSINS! That's right! That cute little blue baby is a fierce and deadly killer!
According to my morning email from mantispets.com, the Wheelbug is the largest species of assassin bugs in North America. They said the one I photographed was a half-grown nymph--still pretty small and without its adult wings. They also said newly hatched young are bright red, which would be equally interesting to see! The spike, or probiscus, is used to pierce the armor of other insects. They then inject the insect with digestive juices to suck out the contents of their prey. (Remind me to stop reading my email during breakfast!)
"They are the only type of animal/insect that will prey on such nuisance species as squash bugs, mexican bean beetles, tomato/tobacco hornworms, and other pests that birds and such won't eat," I was told. "They are generally pretty gentle, but if they should happen to mistake your finger for prey, they will pierce it and can cause a nasty wound by injecting those juices. If you are allergic to bee stings, it could cause a life-threatening reaction." They are currently attempting to breed these creatures at mantispets.com to offer them as beneficial insects for gardeners.
The behavior of the Wheelbug reminds me of the Orb Weavers I saw in great abundance in my Texas gardens and occasionally found in my Colorado gardens, as well. Orb Weavers weave lovely, spiral or wheel-shaped webs, huge webs, sometimes double webs connecting trees and shrubs. The Golden Orb Weaver is highly prized for the thick, durable silk it emits from its body. In fact, there is a tapestry made from the silk of the Golden Silk Orb Weaver on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The females can be as large as my hand and the males so small they are difficult to see. The males, of course, are eaten by the females, so they sometimes sneak up on the female and impregnate her while she is busy eating. I actually saw this happen once.
In 2010 a huge Orb Weaver that I named Miss Alice built her web outside my bedroom patio. The web was so huge I had to duck when I walked through the doorway. I made videos and took photos of her the entire summer and often watched her eating process. They tend to be mostly nocturnal, so she posed quite nicely for me during the daylight. They are not at all aggressive toward humans. In fact, Charlotte in the children's novel by E.B. White, Charlotte's Web, was an Orb Weaver.
Orb Weavers do bite if they feel threatened, so it's recommended that you do not try to handle them, though I have had one on my body before, and I've learned they can be very stubborn. Once, an Orb Weaver tried to build its web across the middle of my garden where I was building a pond. It was a great place to catch those bugs that attacked my flowers, but the web was so large that I was unable to work around it, so my husband moved the spider to a nearby bush. A few minutes later the spider was back, spinning its web. This time I moved it. I thought I was free to start working on my pond. On my hands and knees, I started to dig through the soil with a hand shovel. I felt a tickle on my neck. I thought, "No, it's not possible. I'm imagining this," and continued to work. Another tickle on the neck, then the shoulder. I slowly turned my head. Sure enough, the giant Orb Weaver was sitting on my shoulder, staring at me. THAT was Miss Alice! This time, I moved her to the ivy surrounding my bedroom patio. She seemed to like this better, though when the temperatures reached 110, she moved her web to the north side of the house. The life of Miss Alice is documented in earlier posts on this blog.
The Orb Weaver, of course, catches its meal in its web. As the web begins to bounce from the struggle, the Orb Weaver is alerted and quickly pounces on the prey before it can escape--I have, by the way, seen butterflies and bees manage to escape before the spider arrived. The Orb Weaver eats its prey in a similar fashion to the assassins. First, it gives the prey a quick bite and injects it with toxin, then it spins its silk around its victim and waits for the victim to die. One source I read said the insides of the prey turns to liquid. However, according Iowa State University's bugguide.net, " the spider will literally vomit digestive fluid over the prey. Then the prey is chewed with the "jaws" (chelicerae), and the fluid is sucked back into the mouth together with some liquefied "meat" from the prey. The spider repeats this process as often as necessary to digest, and ingest, all but the inedible hard parts. What is discarded afterwards is a small ball of residue." Hmm, yummy.
I have observed spiders become victims of other creatures, too, though not the big Orb Weavers. Mud Daubers eat spiders, and in an interesting manner.(Okay, I know, this is a matter of opinion). We had an infestation of Mud Daubers at our house in Texas. In fact, when we moved to New Mexico and unpacked those boxes that were stored in the garage during the selling process, we found Mud Dauber nests in every single box attached to books, clothes, knick knacks--they are busy little critters! I believe these were black and yellow Mud Daubers. They didn't bother us, and we didn't seem to bother them, so they stayed busy in our garage and I would sometimes watch them as I walked through on my way to the garden.
The Mud Dauber will catch its prey, generally spiders, and sting it once, which paralyzes the creature. The Mud Dauber then carries the spider back to its nest with its legs, which is really wild to watch! The Mud Dauber nest consists of one or more cylinders made of dried mud with a tiny hole for the front door. The Mud Dauber will slowly stuff the spider through the hole--yes, it's gross. It deposits a single egg on the spider, then seals the hole of the nest with more mud. Sometimes more than one spider is inserted into the same hole. I watched a Mud Dauber stuff four spiders into one nest once. The Mud Dauber does not return to the nest. The hatchlings eat the prey and leave their home to deal with their abandonment issues on their own, poor little orphans.