Baltimore County

Predatory praying mantises are harmless to humans

I don't know which one of us was more startled — me or the praying mantis. But as a result of my close encounter with this nasty-looking insect that had color-coordinated camouflage, I jerked back, and the mantis took flight.

A pious-looking insect

Twenty types of mantises occupy North America. Regardless of the species, though, they won't harm you — unless you're another insect: At least, that's what entomologist say.

In any case, don't let the reverent posture of a mantis fool you. It's actually the hunting position they assume to prey on insects with deadly precision.

Which reminds me. There was a time when these ferocious-appearing insects were called "mule killers," because it was believed that a single bite from a mantis' pincer could kill a mule.

On the other hand, another superstition has it that mantises deliver good luck — due to their pious-looking pose, no doubt. In fact, the ancient Greeks observed mantis behavior in an attempt to divine the future.

Predatory insectivores

Thousand of mantis species stalk the temperate and subtropical regions of the planet. Most of them are ambush predators that wait for any insect smaller than themselves — garden-friendly or otherwise — to stray within reach of their pincers and venomless bites.

But mantises eat each other, too. Specifically, females sometimes dine on mates. Plus, hatchlings often cannibalize each other when other sources of food are scarce.

Whatever you do, though, don't kill one. Legend has it bad luck will stalk you like a hungry mantis.

This week in the garden

On a hunch, I made an extra effort to keep the roots of our produce-producing specimens wet during recent heat waves. What hunch?

If I kept their roots wet, I felt there was a good chance our produce would taste sweeter, as opposed to tasting sour.

My hunch paid off. Our berries, cucumbers and squashes taste super sweet.

Whenever I water plants, incidentally, I try not to wet their leaves, because wet leaves — especially after dark — are more prone to contracting disease.

In the meantime, if the leaves of your tomato plants are turning brown, the cause is probably blight related. Wetting the leaves, then, enables plant diseases to spread.

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