Tag Archives: publication

Late summer soothsayers

In late July or early August last year I walked under a hackberry sapling in my backyard and thought, surely I won’t look up and see an arboreal rough green snake. Instead I was surprised to find a large green and brown mantis, and it was there almost every day through mid-September. The hackberry attracted a species of large, blueish-gray plant-sucking true bug, and the mantis ate those, and then cicadas, putting on weight. It stalked large dragonflies that perched on dead twigs but I never saw it catch one (it also stalked small katydids, but I’m not sure if it caught any). At night it rested, often upside down, its ‘beady’ green eyes turning black. Earlier that summer I saw a beautiful green nymph that might have been the same mantis. The adult was probably a female Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), but it could have been a narrow-winged or Japanese mantis (Tenodera augustipennis), or a praying or European mantis, which is actually only one kind (Mantis religiosa). Later I found an eggcase, resembling that of a Chinese mantis, on a low plant nearby and nymphs are around again this year. There were also Carolina mantises (Stagomantis carolina), a small, mottled gray species with bright orange markings. One spent a night just before Halloween on a red maple snag covered with morning glories vines. There are more than 2500 species, and over 11 in the USA (and introduced species might be harming native mantises). Mantises or mantids were classified with grasshoppers as orthopterans and then given their own order, Mantodea. Mantises are closest to cockroaches and termites, and they can all be grouped together as dicytopterans.

Also in the area there are much smaller but also predaceous mantisflies, which resemble a cross between a mantis and a wasp or fly, but they are neuropterans like lacewings and antlions.

Mantis comes from Greek for prophet, and mantises are charismatic creatures worldwide. Here they have been called soothsayers, rearhorses, devil-horses (god-horse in the Caribbean), praying locusts, and mulekillers, because their dark saliva was thought to be poisonous (and blinding). In the Southwest they were called campomoche and cortón, rezadora, or just mantis in Spanish. A Japanese name is kamakiri, which appears to combine sickle and “to cut,” but this is a guess about the etymology. Another name is tōrō. T. augustipennis is called Chōsen [Korea] kamakiri in Japanese while T. sinensis is ōkamakiri (presumably big mantis). Praying mantis is la mante religieuse or prie-Dieu in French and Gottesanbeterin in German. A dictionary from ancient Assyria calls them necromancer or soothsayer-grasshoppers. In ancient Egypt the bird-fly was thought to guide the dead and in ancient Greece mantids directed lost travellers. The Southern Africa trickster god !Kaggen could appear as a mantis inspiring an Afrikaans word for mantis, Hottentotsgot. Mantids were apparently more closely observed in East Asia than in Europe and inspired two Chinese martial arts. Mantises appear on ancient Greek coins and in modern monster movies. People today talk about being abducted by mantislike beings. The Carolina mantis is South Carolina’s state insect while Connecticut’s is the praying mantis. Mantises are also popular as insect pets.

This is an excerpt from my article in the July – August issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, available at many libraries, public gardens, and gardening-related stores in the Triangle and posted online at: www.trianglegardener.com

Some resources:

A key to the mantises of Florida, but useful elsewhere:

entnemdept.ufl.edu/choate/mantid_key2_03.pdf

Carolina mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/4821

Praying mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/22947

Chinese mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/12409 

Narrow-winged mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/22947

Asian jumping mantises (recently found in Virginia and north apparently):

bugguide.net/node/view/1738253

animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Stagmomantis_carolina.html/ (Carolina mantis)

animaldiversity.org/accounts/Tenodera_aridifolia/ (Chinese mantis listed under an old classification or a closely related species)

“Praying mantids of the United Statesn, native and introduced,” a detailed article in the 1950 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution:

www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/8787514#page/408/mode/1up

“Another Oriental mantis well established in the United States” in the 1933 Entomological News:

www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/20315#page/9/mode/1up

Japanese insect website with many photos:

www.insects.jp/konbunkama.htm

The remarkable “Bark Flowers”

In the early 90’s an educational website, I think associated with NOVA and on the Prodigy service, had a series of possibly tongue-in-cheek articles about the abilities of a hypothetical pet slime mold, so I wanted to find one of these strange creatures. Several years later first saw one, on an old stump in deep shade along Crooked Creek near what is now Southpoint Mall. More recently in late May one year I saw some on shredded wood or bark mulch in front of the Raleigh Convention Center, in a very built-up area of downtown Raleigh. This mulch, and possibly old pine logs, seem to be favored habitats. I usually see them around now, when it is warm but still moist. There was enough rain last summer that I found some later than usual and for the first time in my yard. All of these might have been bright yellow scrambled-egg slimes (Fuligo septica), once called bark flowers and unusual in extreme bioaccumulation of zinc, used in a pigment. The many-headed slime (Physarum polycephalum) is a stereotypical slime mold popular in research. I might have seen light red wolf’s-milk or wood-loving slimes (Lycogala epidendrum) on a pine log at Falls Lake State Recreation Area. I’m not sure if I saw a fungus or chocolate tube slime, also called pipecleaner or deep-brown slime (Stemonitis splendens) and others, on pine logs at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area. There are hundreds of species in North America but there might be around 50 in a given region, many described in the Audubon mushroom guide. Diversity is highest in temperate areas, and slimes can live in the treetops, snow, underwater, and even in deserts. They are no longer consider fungi and don’t seem particularly slimey. Despite their sometimes loud colors, slimes are usually inconspicuous organisms, but still have cultural connections to humans and other ecological connections. A plasmodial slime mold is basically a giant cell, without nerves or muscles, but since the 90’s their mental abilities have been uncovered and they get mentioned in surprising places, from geography to astronomy.

The rest of this article is in the May-June issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, distributed at Durham County libraries, which I think are reopening now, and at other locations, and it is available online at www.trianglegardener.com