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On The Town

The praying mantis (above, life-size) is causing panic in the streets

FOUR YELLING housewives ran out of a Manhattan delicatessen. Close behind them and no less agitated sped the proprietor in his white apron. They and the crowd that soon gathered were peering furtively into the store when the squad car arrived.

"It's in there," the man said.

"It glared at me, officer," said one of the excited women.

Unable to get a clear explanation from the uneasy crowd, the police closed in to defend the public safety against they knew not what. Once inside, they found the panic had been created by a four-inch-long greenish insect standing defiantly in the middle of the floor. It was a praying mantis.

This incident is typical of many eastern cities in late August and in September, when these tigers of the insect world appear in odd urban places. The police, museums and zoos receive frequent telephone calls from startled persons who have been confronted by one of the critters. Often the callers are office workers, for the mantises, although rather poor flyers, are carried upward by strong winds.

"There's a big bug on my window sill and he's staring at me. What shall I do?" one museum caller said.

"Stare right back, madam, it's only a praying mantis," she was informed.

The adult mantis is green and brown with two pairs of long, lacy wings. It stands on four of its six legs as though teetering on jointed toothpicks. Its forelegs are its weapons, a wicked pair of grabbers set with opposing teeth, like rose thorns. The insect takes its name from its habit of posing with these forelegs folded in an attitude of prayer.

Sitting in its holier-than-thou posture, the mantis waits for its victim. Should a grasshopper come along, the insect carnivore slowly turns its head to watch the approach of its next meal. When it is within reach, the toothed forelegs shoot out with such rapidity that the grasshopper, for all his own agility, hasn't a chance. He is pinioned in a pair of saw-edged jaws from which there is no escape. Then the cold-eyed conqueror takes his time. Leisurely and daintily he starts nibbling on the struggling prisoner with the calm of a man eating an ear of sweet corn.


In the fall, the female deposits her eggs in a case resembling dried foam. All winter long these egg cases cling to the twigs of bushes and trees. In late spring as many as 200 tiny mantises will hatch out of a single egg mass. At birth they are agile and ready to pounce on any insect they can master.

On first meeting an adult praying mantis, people usually mention the eyes, the most prominent features of its triangular head. It is really not so much the eyes but the way the mantis uses them that causes consternation. It can turn its head almost all the way around, like an owl, and if you walk in front of one it will follow you with a cold, supercilious stare. It is the only insect that can look over its shoulder.

This late-summer city-goer is an Oriental species which first appeared in this country at a plant nursery at Germantown, Pa. around 1896. It was believed that the egg cases were clinging to some plants imported from China.

Attaining a length of four inches, this immigrant is larger than any of the 15 or more species of praying mantis native to the United States.

Its prodigious appetite for other insects led the Oriental mantis to be regarded as valuable to have around a garden. Some entomologists point out that it eats the good along with the bad, relishing a honey bee as much as a Japanese beetle. But in most gardens the newcomer is welcome. It spread out from Pennsylvania slowly of its own accord and later people began doing a mail-order business in mantises, collecting egg cases and shipping them all over. Now the creature may show up in anybody's home town.

Even among city folk the original jitters soon wear off and many a mantis now becomes a pet. City people will make pets of almost anything. I once knew a small boy who filched a cherry-stone clam from his mother before she could serve it on the half shell and made a nest for it. Mantises make much better pets than clams.

There have been so many demands for information on these fall invaders that the American Museum of Natural History now gets out a leaflet on the care and feeding of mantises. Included is a warning to keep them in separate cages if you have more than one. The female has a grisly trait that she shares with the spider: after mating, in captivity at least, she will often devour her spouse. In the insect world, no one invites a mantis to dinner.