It was a frosty January morning when I arrived at my desk in the Gardener’s Supply call center to find a small box and a note. The box contained about 15 praying mantid egg cases; the note read: “These came in unsolicited; we thought of you. —Your friends in the Merchandising Department.”
Thank goodness I had a net enclosure to put the cases in: The praying mantids (Mantis religiosa) started to hatch right away, several hundred at a time. The process is dramatic, and many of the new creatures do not survive. When an egg hatches, it’s like a flow of water. The babies have not expanded and they are connected by an umbilical to the sac. They must break free and open their legs up. Many do not manage this feat and become tangled in the lines or with others. The tiny creatures are extremely delicate, so many die in the process.
In doing research online, I found details on how to care for these babies, including tips from people who raise mantids as a hobby and keep them as pets. For food, I went to the pet store to get some fruit flies. I also provided a water source in the form of cotton balls soaked in water. Had I tried to use a dish the tiny insects could have fallen in and drowned. The fruit flies also used this as a source of water. I didn’t even have to train any of them what to do.
When they matured, many of the mantids were were released in greenhouses to do what they do so well: pest control. I still have some at home. They love to cling to the sides of their containers and hang off the tops. The smaller ones still eat fruit flies while the larger ones have very small crickets.
It’s been scary and exhilarating to watch as the babies have gone through several stages on their way to adulthood. My goal is to raise the remaining insects and release them when food is available outside. They are fierce predators and will, in fact, eat one another. During a recent workshop on pest control, one of my pets proceeded to eat the head off another — that’s when I got the crickets.