Animals, Korea, Urban Walking
Comments 14

A Mantis Trilogy #1: Femme Fatale

It’s been a mighty good season for the dragonfly freak. Summer has been hot, dry and interminable (yes, it’s officially Autumn now, but you wouldn’t know it — I’m writing this outside in T-shirt and shorts), and it seems to me that my favourite insects, the dragonflies, are hanging around a lot longer than last year — and in even greater numbers.

Dragonflies are far more prevalent in the local landscape than birds — whether it be the squadrons negotiating even strong breezes with ease, or the individuals perched like sentinels on fence posts, wires, branches and stalks. Most weekend mornings find me, as ever, getting up by 4:30 to amble down to one of the creeks, or a little further, to the rice paddy verges where dragonflies and other insects thrive.

But lately I’ve noticed more of another fascinating insect, even on urban streets — the praying mantis:

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Crossing my street. I helped out — Korean drivers show pedestrians no mercy.

The mantis is surely one of the weirdest of bugs. With insects, though, it’s all relative:

July last year. I found a forest pool literally crawling with these freakazoids.

In July last year I found a forest pool literally crawling with these freakazoids

I used to think of the mantis as my second-favourite insect, but after Saturday I’m not so sure. I love their size, and otherworldliness, their gangly, unfeasibly top-heavy front limbs, and those bulbous predator’s eyes as the beast swivels its E.T.-like head to regard you from its foothold on fence or branch: either suggesting serene wisdom or cold and brimming with menace like a shark’s.

Well, on Saturday, I came face to side with the dark side of the mantis. And let me tell you, they got the “praying” part all wrong. Preying mantis is what they should be called…

When I woke it was 4:44. In my culture, 4 is often considered a lucky number, but tetraphobia (based on the similarity of the sound of “four” in the local language to “death”) is rampant in many Asian countries:

In Korea…the floor number 4 is almost always skipped in hospitals and similar public buildings. In other buildings, the fourth floor is sometimes labeled “F” (Four) instead of “4” in elevators. 

Fortunately I’m a boring rationalist and my worst phobias — death by crocodile or shark attack; flying in light aircraft; hiking in black socks or doing a loop counter-clockwise — are entirely sensible real-world fears. So off I set, beneath a vivid pre-dawn sky…

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Urban Korea is riddled with churches, most of them exceedingly ugly

..in the direction of Yulha, a couple of miles away…

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..while that sky exploded into colour:

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This photo is relatively “real”. This is a Photoshop-Free Zone.

This was the most spectacular sunrise I’ve observed in Korea. And it peaked for a full 10 minutes:

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So my day was looking good, and not even a whisper of DEATH. Until, as I was passing a green mesh fence, a shape on the wire caught my eye.

Cool: a mantis, and a big bugger too. And then (inching closer, camera out): Oh, cool, it’s mating. And then: BY ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY, THIS CANNOT BE! IT’S MATING WITH A HEADLESS CORPSE:

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Wham, bam, thank you, man

I have a pretty strong stomach (Korean school lunches excepted), but this freaked me out. I mean, the head had not been cleanly removed — that beheading was gonna leave a nasty scar. And my sleep-deprived, trauma-clouded brain told me everything I was observing was a myth.

So I got out my phone — what an age we live in — and typed in “praying mantis” plus (gulp) “beheading”. Found myself in a sceptic’s site called Snopes.com, where I learned in an article entitled Preymates that of 30 mating pairs observed in the lab, not one indulged in any necrophiliac hanky panky.

Old wives’ tale? Not quite.

Yes, the female mantis does sometimes eat her mate. In fact, male mantises will often offer themselves up as food during the mating process, and from a biological perspective this action makes sense: There’s no point to mating with a female who might die from a lack of food before she can lay her eggs…

The conclusion was that stressful lab conditions or inadequate diet in captivity had distorted the natural behaviour in previous studies. Well, I’m here to tell you the phenomenon is real in the wild.

Meanwhile, I was getting pretty obtrusive with the cameras. Hey, lady, don’t look at me like that. Nobody asked you to break three major taboos — murder, necrophilia & public intercourse — right here on the main drag.

My workhorse camera has no telephoto or macro setting, so my insect-chasing involves getting the lens up to six inches (the limit) from my, er, prey. This ensures I make a comical sight for passersby among the weeds of south-eastern Korea.

My point-and-shoot does have a macro feature, but the image quality is a lot worse, and there’s no viewfinder. Still, it let me get up close to these forelegs of death. Spend too much time contemplating stuff like this and you’ll end up in the rubber room:

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“I got arms that long to hold you & keep you by my side…”

In fact the supposedly pious-looking mantis makes the eponymous Predator look like the Easter Bunny. A few tidbits from Wikipedia:

  • In its first instar [developmental stage] a mantis will eat small insects such as tiny flies or its own siblings.
  • Mantises may have a visual range of up to 20 metres.
  • Mantises are highly visual organisms, and notice any disturbance occurring in the laboratory or field such as bright lights or moving scientists.
  • Large species of mantis have been known to prey on small scorpions, lizards, frogs, birds, snakes, fish, and even rodents.
  • The majority of mantises are ambush predators, but some ground and bark species will actively pursue their prey.
  • The mantis usually holds its prey with one arm between the head and thorax, and the other on the abdomen. Then, if the prey does not resist, the mantis will eat it alive. However, if the prey does resist, the mantis will often eat it head first.
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“Mum, tell us about Daddy. What was he like?” “Well, Junior, in a word: delicious.”

I left the Green Widow to deal with her guilt issues, if any, and went down to weed-choked Yulha Creek. Moral revulsion aside, it had been a good morning, and the luck continued. Dragonflies were abuzz on the bank…

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..and the pink clover strangling the stream was an insect haven:

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Local collecting edible plants

I hung there while the day brightened and walkers appeared on the paths…

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..attracting the usual glances and outright stares from humans and others:

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Up by the path, recently pruned shrubs were popular dragonfly perches. These were unusually cooperative, though I’ve found these red ones are the easiest talent to work with:

red dragonfly on shrub

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Ordinarily I’d continue to the rice paddies another half-mile away. But today I turned and headed home. It had been a killer morning already — why not finish on a high?

Arguably my day had turned out a lot better than Mr Mantis’s.

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Snake bean perch near my apartment

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

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14 Comments

  1. Oh, yes! Epic post on a buggy subject. It was always going to appeal to me. That had nothing to do with the preying she-devil, of course!

  2. The red dragonflies are considered a sign of autumn over this side of the lake too.
    Too bad people don’t appreciate the mantis -I remember seeing some old woman bludgeoning some with a plastic bottle. I hope she learns that killing a praying mantis will bring bad luck.

    • Hopefully she’ll enjoy the loving embrace of a giant mantis in the afterlife! I think that behaviour starts young. Not sure about mantises but I’m sure, like me, you’ve seen schoolgirls shriek and jump back from…dragonflies. Those deadly, vicious dragonflies.

      • Haha, yes, the Japanese “love of nature” in action! I might have told this story before, but I once saw even fully grown suited-up salarymen flee a train carriage in Tokyo when a cicada got in! I remember a single fly or moth bringing a conversation lesson to a stop at our old school. And here in Korea the intrusion of any insect into the classroom is a welcome break as it will take at least five mins to restore order — I’ve seen even co-teachers cowering from some harmless bug…

  3. Thank you for the humorous asides and the gorgeous photos. I enjoyed your commentary.

    (I have a co-worker who shrieks whenever she sees a dragonfly. While I prefer the smaller versions, I just show the big guys the door … and the way to freedom.) 🙂

  4. Hey Goat, you’ve been in good form lately and pumping out the posts like a dervish! I’m struggling to keep up. I’ll get there, but I’m taking my time. If you keep up this pace, I’ll be left for dead!

    Man, you are the boss of the insect photo. How do you come across these sights? I try to adopt your principle of insect looking and see stuff-all on my walks. Maybe I’m blind as a bat or not attentive enough? Could be both, as I need something the size of an echidna to catch my eye!

    Love the pictures and the story. Had a bit of the Ed Gein’s about it. Good information session as well. ‘Come see the wizened Goat and learn stuff’. Almost a new motto, but I just checked the dictionary for wizened and it says, ‘shrivelled’. You may want to leave that bit out…

    • I’ll take “wizened” but I prefer “venerable”.

      I know what you mean about the insects. It’s funny, Australia is crawling (heh) with the buggers but they’re usually not as in yer face as they are here. I think the climate here in the south, the slack standard of public landscaping and maintenance (ie, rampant weeds EVERYWHERE) and the rice paddies make for an insect-freak’s dream! But my eyes are tuned to spot them as well — I can literally see a dark spot on a tall blade of grass from several metres after so many hours of practice!

      Yeah, the posts are coming thick and fast. I’ve actually called a temporary embargo on Korea posts as I think I — and probably my readers — need a good break. I’m aiming to do 10 or so from other places — should help clear the backlog too! A few more American ones, Switzerland, Japan, maybe even a couple from back home. Downside is it forces me to re-edit a lot of older shots from the days when I only used iPhoto — including ALL the shots from Switzerland. Bonus: at least I’m having another look at them, finding a few lost treasures, etc.

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