In Defense of Mantises

The Environmental Studies Program was given a gift of four praying mantis egg sacs by Nada Finn of Green Town Waukegan in April. The mantis nymphs hatched on May 18, 2011, the same day that garden intern Xander Agosta ‘12 had his 21st birthday. Having pet praying mantises has been an unexpected joy for the Garden Crew of 2011. The lesson, in brief, is that when someone offers you praying mantis egg sacs (oothecae) to care for, you just say yes.

When most people contemplate adopting a pet, their usual thought process runs along the lines of household convention. They trek to a pet store and peruse the shelves for something that complements them: a new Labrador for the budding family, a black cat for the recent widow, or a Beta fish for the chronic workaholic. Occasionally, a little tyke might pause in awe of a tarantula, but as far as pets go—people usually won’t think twice about invertebrates.

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Invertebrates are some of the most diverse creatures on earth. Ants can lift many times their own weight, the tiger beetle can run as fast as 5.6 miles per hour (the equivalent of a human running 460 mph), and monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles to overwinter in a place they’ve never been. While it’s possible to have any one of these as a pet, here in the E.S. department we have stumbled across an awesome and personable ‘bug’ – the praying mantis.

The 2011 Garden Crew (Garden Manager Liz Birnbaum ’08 and Interns Xander Agosta ’12, Jade Perkins ’14, Claire Perrott ’14, and Ryan Vlaar ’14) came together around caring for these seemingly odd pets. The initial reason to have mantises as pets was simple. Mantises are great companions for gardeners because they eat the very insects that would turn your best leafy greens into mesh.

Something changed for the Garden Crew when we started interacting with these fascinating creatures: we all banded together around the idea of caring for the mantis nymphs as our first garden project in May. We all did research into what they would eat, when and how to release them, and other special needs mantises as pets would need. We shared stories of the mantises with friends and growin’ at rowan blog readers, alike. In short, we evangelized for mantises as pets.

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The mantises became emblematic of the Environmental Studies Program:

Claire Perrott posted on the garden blog the day that the mantids hatched: “It is so much fun to be able to learn about something completely different- I would never learn about what to do with 100 praying mantis in any of my Latin American Studies classes. […] Today we are going bug hunting for the little guys. A professor in the bio department gave us some nets to use to catch bugs and find out what our babies like to eat. I hope we can catch something that our babies will like without getting too many ticks on us!”

Most of the mantids were released into the garden on June 21, and again Claire posted: “I feel like I’m sending my children off to college; I may see them again, but they’ll probably just get lost in the garden. Hopefully, they do their job and are strong enough to do what we raised them for.” We kept a few as pets and named them Ginny and Larry.

As we sent the young mantis nymphs out, we hoped that they would live through the season, but we had not seen any again until last week. Ryan and Claire were working in the garden after class, and they spotted one! They found a beautiful adult female camouflaged among the bush beans near the garden gate. They grabbed a net and scooped her up.

We all went to the Biology Department and asked professors Ann Houde and Sean Menke if they had anything we could put her in. They were kind enough to lend us a terrarium for her, and we named her Cleopatra. She now resides in the lounge of the Environmental Studies building, Ravine Lodge.

It has been an amazing experience to see the young nymphs, release them, and then to find one at the end of the season. For now, we are all thrilled to have Cleopatra as our pet in the Environmental Studies Program. Come by Ravine Lodge to visit her!

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-Liz Birnbaum, Ryan Vlaar, and Claire Perrott