Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Can You Guess What This Is?

This past weekend was just spectacular...sunshine, temperatures in the low 70F with a slight breeze. My family and I took full advantage of our mid-winter heatwave and got right to tidying up the gardens. When I was cleaning up in the woodland garden I found this maple leaf with a sack looking thing attached to it.


Do you know what this is? I have never seen anything like it before. I thought it was probably a nest of some sort of insect but frankly I didn't have a glue which one. Any guesses?

The material is pretty sturdy. It feels almost like Styrofoam. It is approximately 1.5" long.


The front of the sack has a small opening. From this angle you can also get a better idea of what the sack is made of...almost silk-like threads. Have you guessed who this belongs to yet?


After complete inspection of my discovery I still didn't really know what it was. I needed to enlist the help of others. I took it to my local Extension Office to ask some of my Master Gardener friends. They had lots of ideas but no one knew decisively what it was. So, I took it over to our local Nature Center, Elachee Nature Science Center, to speak with a Naturalist. Brilliant! She knew exactly what this was. 

Are you ready?

This sack, is in fact an ootheca. A what? An ootheca, a type of egg mass which contains many eggs surrounded by a protein which then hardens into a tough casing for protection. The ootheca making insect that created this egg mass is none other than....


...praying mantis

I see them with regularity during the summer months in my garden. I have a love-hate relationship with these insects. And this is why...

Praying mantis (or praying mantids) get their name from their front legs that are bent and held at an angle to suggest the position of prayer. The name "mantis" comes from the Greek work 'prophet' or 'soothsayer'. All very righteous. But wait...

Quite unlike their name denotes, they are formidable predators.  They are the only insect that can turn their heads 180 degrees to check out their surroundings. A little creepy if you have ever been stared down by one of these creatures. With their compound eyes, which are highly sensitive to movement up to 60 feet away, they really look like some alien from another planet. Thank goodness they max out at 6" long.


Camouflage is very important to a praying mantis' survival. It is key to protecting themselves against their many predators (birds, bats, frogs & snakes...).  Do you see how well she is camouflaged on my Buddleia? They are almost invisible on a leaf or steam of a plant. 


Camouflage is also an important part of ambushing their prey. They wait quietly ready to catch their pray when it passes. They use their front legs which are equipped with rows of sharp spines to grasp their prey. Then they bite the neck of their prey with their very powerful jaws to paralyze it. The praying mantis then begins to devour its meal. They eat beetles, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, crickets, spiders and other bugs. They have also been known to eat others of their own kind. The most notorious example is the female eating her mate just after or even during mating.  This behavior however doesn't seem to deter the males from reproduction. 

They breed during the summer months. After mating the female lays groups of 12-400 eggs in the fall in a frothy liquid called an "ootheca" that turns into a hard protective shell (see my photos above). The small mantids live in this shell during the wintertime and emerge in the spring. Often, their first meal is a sibling! No love lost there. 

Now before you decidedly hate these insects for their cannibalistic and  predatory ways note that the young mantids (or nymphs) eat  leaf hoppers, aphids and small flies.  That is a very good thing to a gardener. In fact praying mantis are terrific pest exterminators. They assist in controlling populations of bugs that are a threat to farming. So, other than being indiscriminate eaters in our gardens and cannibalistic they can be a beneficial insect.  Perhaps their shortcomings should be overlooked? or not? Either way, I think I had a pretty good find in my garden that day.

27 comments:

  1. I admire your dedication to find the insect responsible for the egg ootheca. You are lucky to have them in your yard even though they are creepy fellows. I rarely see the here and wish I did.

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  2. A wonderful post Karin! I'm so glad you took the time to find out about your mystery! We here at Sunny Side Up are big fans of the Praying Mantis! I would love to invite you to see one of my all time favorite posts here: http://sunnysideup-eve.blogspot.com/2009/09/what-do-you-feed-praying-mantis.html
    You just never know the surprises you get when you spend a little time with the creatures around you!!!

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  3. Donna, one of my professions in my former life was as a researcher so I am a little relentless when it comes to figuring out things I want to know. :)

    Eve, I LOVED your post on your praying mantis. Who knew that they have a sweet tooth! And what an incredible job you did capturing your story in the photographs!

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  4. I didn't have a clue what that was -- how cool to discover a praying mantis egg sac. Fantastic post -- I learned so much. And I understand your love of doing research -- I'm the same way!

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  5. Very good detective work! I had no idea what that was...Praying mantis are fun to look at because they are so strange looking.

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  6. No way! I had no idea - thanks to your detective work, I now have a killer Scrabble word. :) I see a praying mantis now and again in my garden - they always made me jump.

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  7. Ours make a more angular home for their babies. When they hatch they are so tiny, you have to imagine you can see them. Sometimes I have to coax the babies onto a bit of paper and out into the garden, where they are more likely to survive.

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  8. Careful, though. The mantis oothecae looks suspiciously like a puss caterpillar or asp. One is a harmless egg sack carrying beneficial insects; the other will sting you and hurt like the dickens!!!

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  9. Good information Karin. I see praying mantis quite often but haven't come across the ootheca...I'll keep my eye out for them now that I know what I'm looking for!

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  10. I knew what it was immediately! I find them in my garden sometimes. If the newly hatched mantids can't find food right away , they eat each other. Big ones have even been known to catch hummingbirds. They are definitely weird bugs! I hope it's not the puss caterpillar like Toni suggested! Gross!!

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  11. I have seen their egg cases many times in the garden, but the one in your picture looks different, maybe I am used to fresher specimens. Lots of helpful information in your post. The photo of the face is amazing. I guess I never observed them that closely. No love/hate relationship here. I love them---they are just doing what nature intended no matter how strange it seems to us.

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  12. I havent seen their egg casing before so I wouldnt know if I found one. Great information on the praying mantis though I havent found one in my garden yet!

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  13. A great post. I love the praying mantis. I have since I was a small child. Some how in my small little girl heart, I determined they were magical.

    Great detective work. I was relieved to find out that it was not a spider post. I hesitated a the picture of the opening....

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  14. Oh, thank y'all for your wonderful comments and input...

    Meredith, I love new discoveries and investigating new finds especially with my kids.

    Amy, indeed they are one of the strangest insects in my garden and therefore so fascinating.

    Hanni, indeed...we love playing scrabble here at Southern Meadows especially out on the back deck on warm summer nights.

    Elephant's Eye, I (obviously) have never seen the praying mantis hatch out. What an incredible thing to see. It is rather strange to me that they will eat their siblings but ...survival of the fittest.

    Toni, you had me worried so I made a call to the Nature Center and talked to the Naturalist again. She says no, it is a praying mantis egg sac but is old and it has some markings from another leaf that was imprinted on the ootheca. Thanks for the warning!

    Cat, thanks! one never know what you might find in the backyard. I don't know if I will ever come across one again but I am on the lookout now too.

    Casa Mariposa, I did read that they will get hummingbirds. Hard to imagine. Hence, my love-hate relationship with them. I love hummingbirds, ladybugs and other bugs that they eat. But one can't deny the good they do in the garden too. Plus they are so funny to watch.

    Carolyn, I think you may be right. My specimen is old. The only reason I found it was because the leaf fell off the tree. Who know how high up it was. I will be on the look out this fall now that I know what to look for.

    P3Chandan, thanks for stopping by and visiting Southern Meadows. I hope you enjoyed your visit and hope you will have to joy of seeing a praying mantis in your garden one of these days. They are indeed fun to watch.

    lifeshighway, that is really sweet! I think praying mantis can be magical especially through a child's eye. They are fun to watch with their funny heads and buggy eyes. I'm glad you continued to read on and enjoyed the post.

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  15. How very interesting! I learned a lot from this post. I love your photos of the alien insect! They are welcome in my garden, but I do feel sorry for the poor mates who must have no idea what the cost of love is!

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  16. Very interesting. I always thought some kind of moth emerged from these. Now I'll know, and I'll sound smart when I find one :)

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  17. Hi Karin, Terrific post!! I recognized it!!! ;>)) great for the garden but do not let them on a hummingbird feeder if you have one. I saw a video of one grabbing a hummingbird and killing it. . . I could not watch the rest. I once had one of those egg pods inside (it should have stayed outside where it was cold) . . . like you I did not know what it was . . . and by late winter there were hundreds of tiny mantis crawling around . . . I had to find a plant for them and then critters. Most died or were eaten by each other for as you say they are not fussy when it comes to brotherly love. Yes, that was a great find!

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  18. Great piece of information, Karin. I've always been a fan of the praying mantis - they're great to have around. I haven't seen any in southern Florida so I wonder if they only do well in temperate zones. Great photos with your post !

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  19. Hi Karin, I like your blog so much, so Im awarding you the Stylish Blogger Award, do come and get it from my blog if you have time.

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  20. Thanks for sharing. I have lots of praying mantis but the eggs look different from the one you showed. Most of the praying mantis I see here are black or green with red on its back. I've also seen one brown one. I have many photos but have not posted yet. I used to see a lot of lady bugs but now they have disappeared. How sad.

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  21. Praying mantis are such odd, but interesting looking bugs. The shot looking into the dark cavern of the sack looks almost scary. It seems fitting that something carnivorous crawled out!

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  22. Great find! What fun solving a mystery!

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  23. Great find and what a fun adventure solving the mystery of the egg sack! I hope those mantises eat all the bad bugs in your garden!

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  24. When I saw you had a sack full of preying mantis I thought - you lucky girl! although I've never seen one of these bugs I have heard about their fantastic abilities to devour other bad insects in the garden so I think they're wonderful. Though perhaps if I had to look at one in person I might feel differently ;-)

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  25. Cool, cool and cool! I am going to be on the look out for miracles like this egg sack! Aren't they incredible...gail

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  26. You've captured the mystery of this incredible insect very well. To me they look like aliens from a far away garden planet but I do enjoy that they eat leaf hoppers in my gardens. I took some great pics of them in my garden last summer. You can search for it on my blog to see them. They seem to have a personality of their own. Great post, Karin!

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  27. Oh Wow! What an amazing find - thanks for sharing. I see Praying Matises in my garden but have never seen one of these. Or perhaps I have and was not aware. Will keep a look out. This was most informative - Thank you!

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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