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:
The mantis is surely one of the weirdest of bugs. With insects, though, it’s all relative:
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…
..in the direction of Yulha, a couple of miles away…
..while that sky exploded into colour:
This was the most spectacular sunrise I’ve observed in Korea. And it peaked for a full 10 minutes:
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:
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:
- 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.
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…
..and the pink clover strangling the stream was an insect haven:
I hung there while the day brightened and walkers appeared on the paths…
..attracting the usual glances and outright stares from humans and others:
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:
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.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote