Each fall I make a pilgrimage to the pasture in a quest to find cocoons. Specifically I am looking for praying mantis cocoons (ootheca). You see, we do not use chemicals here on our farm. We have learned that in order to preserve chemical free crop production, their needs to be other ways to eradicate unwanted insects. The mantis has proven to be the king pin of biological pest control.
Praying mantis (specifically the female) preys on various forms of unwanted insects, and her choices of menu depend upon her stage of development. Nymphs may prey on aphids, other small insects and each other, while the large adult ambushes and feeds on unwanted beetles, stink bugs, flies and sometimes neutral and beneficial insects.
Often, with the adult male, the female can become excited and erratic (no kidding), attacking any unwanted movement. The act of dismounting a female is one of the most dangerous times for males during copulation. For it is at this time that females most frequently cannibalize their mates.
Within the wink of an eye, the female severs the head from the male.
Thus, in the mantis world, it is referred to as giving head.
The increase in mounting duration was thought to indicate that males would be more prone to wait for an opportune time to dismount, say with a bottle of fine French Rose, some cheese, soft music, yada, yada.
She then lays hundreds of eggs, depending on the species. Eggs are typically deposited in a frothy mass that is produced by glands in her abdomen. This froth then hardens, creating a protective capsule. The protective capsule and the egg mass is called an ootheca. Depending on the species, the ootheca can be attached to a flat surface, wrapped around a plant or even deposited in the ground.
Her children she will never see, and yes, I become their guardian. It was on this brisk fall morning. I was on my way through the fields looking for cocoons. The fog had settled on the valley and a hint of frost was still lingering on the high grass. I came to a spot where I had harvested cocoons the day before. As the sun glistened and kissed the tops of the pepper plants, there she was.
Once vibrant and green with glory, she had become sort of a grey tan color, changed with the season. Her eyes as big as the ocean, I knelt down to pick her up. She was resistant at first, but not really. I think that the warmth of my touch comforted her. She sat on my hand for the longest period of time and stared at the grass below. I will never know if she realized how grateful I was and appreciated all that she did. I have been on this earth for so many years. She has been through but one season. Yet the wiser of the two, she made the first move, and crossed my fingers into the grass.
We both knew it was time to go.
Bob Shelley is co-owner of Stony Ridge Farm in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Before this organic lifestyle, Bob was an urban renegade in Baltimore and graphic artist extraordinaire. Truth be told, he loves design as much as praying mantis, and you can see his work here.