twig-leaf (praying mantis)
waiting for prey to stray near --
hapless honeybee -- gone
I am drawn to a hill overlooking our local wetland for a better view of the cloudscape of fleecy cumulus drifting overhead, higher than the three hawks spiraling on invisible currents. Following tractor tracts along the edge of a pasture, I come to a pile of logs where someone has cut down a good-size oak tree. Now my attention is drawn earthward as I tromp all around the logs and squat to count the checkered rings on the largest one.
Just as I am leaving the log pile, I notice a long brown insect hanging upside down from a tall, bushy wildflower with small white blossoms. The creature's slender body blends in perfectly with the stems. It's a praying mantis, though its forelegs, instead of being flexed in prayer position, are extended like a diver about to plunge headfirst. From the brown coloration and slender body, the mantis appears to be a male.
Unbeknownst to me, I am being observed even more carefully than the logs I was examining. As I move around for a closer look, only its small angular head turns to follow my movements. Spooky!
A nectar-seeking honeybee lands on one of the white clusters of blossoms on a stem directly behind the mantis. Somehow sensing potential prey, it rotates its head 180 degrees and folds its forelegs. Look out, bee! Maybe the bee hears my mental alarm because it flies off.
How long has the mantis been patiently waiting for prey to land nearby? Moments later, perhaps the same unwary bee, oblivious to the camouflaged predator, alights on the panicle of tiny flowers in front of the mantis. Detecting motion with its binocular vision, the mantis, forelegs cocked, slowly stalks the bee.
Much faster than my shutter can release, the mantis seizes the bee with its vice-like forelegs, powerful enough to crush its victim.
Whether the bee is dead or alive, the mantis begins to eat the bee headfirst. Hapless honeybee, what you do not see, you become!
The mantis cradles the bee's striped abdomen in one foreleg while it continues to eat the thorax and wings.
The mantis ignores my presence as it munches the bee with its sideways-moving jaws, but I am not curious enough to wait and see whether it consumes every bit of the bee, including the legs. Now I can explain the mysterious disappearance of at least one unfortunate honeybee and attest that the praying mantis preys on beneficial insects as well as garden pests.
As I start to leave the masticating mantis, I spot another male nearby. I can barely distinguish its back legs from the twigs on which it is resting, but the brown outer wings covering the green inner wings, though slender and leaf-like, are easier to identify.
It appears to be in suspended motion, one foreleg raised to move forward. Detecting my presence, it slowly turns its triangular head to stare at me. When disturbed, sometimes a mantis will rear up, spread its wings and forelegs and open its mouth to make itself look bigger and scarier, and of course will pinch and bite anything that comes near. I decide to leave quietly the way I came, awestruck by my encounter with a bee-eater and its fellow carnivore.
The next day I come back, curious to see whether any praying mantids are still hanging out around the log pile. This time I know what to look for and quickly find one on the same type of bushy wildflower. It's hanging upside down again, not some kind of yoga asana pose but a rather successful strategy to look more like a twig-leaf.
This time, a little braver, I poke it with a long twig to see what it will do. I'm a bit disappointed that it does not rear up or spread its wings, though it does grasp and bite the twig. When that doesn't subdue the threat, the mantis slowly retreats to the log pile.
It's a lot more visible against the gray bark and it watches me warily with those keen goggle eyes until I go on my way.