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Are they praying or preying?

Are they praying or preying?

Aptly named ‘praying mantis’
Aptly named ‘praying mantis’
Todd Johnson

Introducing a distinctive group of insects commonly found near the Zambezi – the mantids or mantises, which are harmless and help to control other insect numbers.

There are many fascinating insects to be seen along the Zambezi River. One such group is the praying mantids. Mantids or mantises are carnivorous insects belonging to the insect group Mantodea. ‘Praying’ mantises or mantids is the common name for insects in this group. There are approximately 1800 species of mantids in the world with the highest number of species in the tropics. Africa has the greatest diversity of about 880 species.

The name ‘praying mantis’ is often interchanged with ‘preying mantis’ because mantids are predatory insects. The word mantis was borrowed from the Greek language where it means prophet. These insects are actually called praying mantises for their typical prayer-like stance. Use of the term ‘preying,’ though wrongly misspelled by most people except for entomologists, remains widely acceptable.

Mantises have exceptionally good hunting skills. They are able to ambush prey by disguising themselves and remaining motionless for long periods. Their natural blend of body colour or camouflage is also used to avoid predation. They normally eat what they have killed themselves. Their diet is mainly made up of insects but non insects are also eaten. Unlike assassin bugs which suck fluids from the bodies of their prey, praying mantises actually chew their victims.

For most of us, praying mantises are pests, while others consider them harmful. It is true that they can bite but the bite is harmless. When cornered, the praying mantis will strike with its spiked forelegs before attempting to bite if the attacker persists. If you encounter praying mantises in the bush or in your gardens, my advice is to leave them alone. They are very important in controlling other insects which are harmful to our garden plants and food crops in our fields.     


    •    In China, some mantis species have increased their chances of survival by supplementing their meat diet with pollen.

    •    The European mantis, Mantis religiosa, is the state insect of Connecticut in the USA, even though it is not indigenous to North America.

    •    During mating, the female bites off the male’s head and eats it. 

    •    In southern Africa, legend has it that the praying mantis was referred to as a god among the Khoisan people.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 12, March 2013)


Zambia Tourism