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THE MANTIS - COURTSHIP




The little we have seen of the customs of the Mantis does not square
very well with the popular name for the insect. From the term
_Prego-Dieu_ we should expect a peaceful placid creature, devoutly
self-absorbed; and we find a cannibal, a ferocious spectre, biting open
the heads of its captives after demoralising them with terror. But we
have yet to learn the worst. The customs of the Mantis in connection
with its own kin are more atrocious even than those of the spiders, who
bear an ill repute in this respect.

To reduce the number of cages on my big laboratory table, to give myself
a little more room, while still maintaining a respectable menagerie, I
installed several females under one cover. There was sufficient space in
the common lodging and room for the captives to move about, though for
that matter they are not fond of movement, being heavy in the abdomen.
Crouching motionless against the wire work of the cover, they will
digest their food or await a passing victim. They lived, in short, just
as they lived on their native bushes.

Communal life has its dangers. When the hay is low in the manger
donkeys grow quarrelsome, although usually so pacific. My guests might
well, in a season of dearth, have lost their tempers and begun to fight
one another; but I was careful to keep the cages well provided with
crickets, which were renewed twice a day. If civil war broke out famine
could not be urged in excuse.

At the outset matters did not go badly. The company lived in peace, each
Mantis pouncing upon and eating whatever came her way, without
interfering with her neighbours. But this period of concord was of brief
duration. The bellies of the insects grew fuller: the eggs ripened in
their ovaries: the time of courtship and the laying season was
approaching. Then a kind of jealous rage seized the females, although no
male was present to arouse such feminine rivalry. The swelling of the
ovaries perverted my flock, and infected them with an insane desire to
devour one another. There were threats, horrid encounters, and cannibal
feasts. Once more the spectral pose was seen, the hissing of the wings,
and the terrible gesture of the talons outstretched and raised above the
head. The females could not have looked more terrible before a grey
cricket or a Decticus. Without any motives that I could see, two
neighbours suddenly arose in the attitude of conflict. They turned their
heads to the right and the left, provoking one another, insulting one
another. The _pouf! pouf!_ of the wings rubbed by the abdomen sounded
the charge. Although the duel was to terminate at the first scratch,
without any more serious consequence, the murderous talons, at first
folded, open like the leaves of a book, and are extended laterally to
protect the long waist and abdomen. The pose is superb, but less
terrific than that assumed when the fight is to be to the death.

Then one of the grappling-hooks with a sudden spring flies out and
strikes the rival; with the same suddenness it flies back and assumes a
position of guard. The adversary replies with a riposte. The fencing
reminds one not a little of two cats boxing one another's ears. At the
first sign of blood on the soft abdomen, or even at the slightest wound,
one admits herself to be conquered and retires. The other refurls her
battle standard and goes elsewhere to meditate the capture of a cricket,
apparently calm, but in reality ready to recommence the quarrel.

Very often the matter turns out more tragically. In duels to the death
the pose of attack is assumed in all its beauty. The murderous talons
unfold and rise in the air. Woe to the vanquished! for the victor seizes
her in her vice-like grip and at once commences to eat her; beginning,
needless to say, at the back of the neck. The odious meal proceeds as
calmly as if it were merely a matter of munching a grasshopper; and the
survivor enjoys her sister quite as much as lawful game. The spectators
do not protest, being only too willing to do the like on the first
occasion.

Ferocious creatures! It is said that even wolves do not eat one another.
The Mantis is not so scrupulous; she will eat her fellows when her
favourite quarry, the cricket, is attainable and abundant.

These observations reach a yet more revolting extreme. Let us inquire
into the habits of the insect at breeding time, and to avoid the
confusion of a crowd let us isolate the couples under different covers.
Thus each pair will have their own dwelling, where nothing can trouble
their honeymoon. We will not forget to provide them with abundant food;
there shall not be the excuse of hunger for what is to follow.

We are near the end of August. The male Mantis, a slender and elegant
lover, judges the time to be propitious. He makes eyes at his powerful
companion; he turns his head towards her; he bows his neck and raises
his thorax. His little pointed face almost seems to wear an expression.
For a long time he stands thus motionless, in contemplation of the
desired one. The latter, as though indifferent, does not stir. Yet the
lover has seized upon a sign of consent: a sign of which I do not know
the secret. He approaches: suddenly he erects his wings, which are
shaken with a convulsive tremor.

This is his declaration. He throws himself timidly on the back of his
corpulent companion; he clings to her desperately, and steadies himself.

The prelude to the embrace is generally lengthy, and the embrace will
sometimes last for five or six hours.

Nothing worthy of notice occurs during this time. Finally the two
separate, but they are soon to be made one flesh in a much more intimate
fashion. If the poor lover is loved by his mistress as the giver of
fertility, she also loves him as the choicest of game. During the day,
or at latest on the morrow, he is seized by his companion, who first
gnaws through the back of his neck, according to use and wont, and then
methodically devours him, mouthful by mouthful, leaving only the wings.
Here we have no case of jealousy, but simply a depraved taste.

I had the curiosity to wonder how a second male would be received by a
newly fecundated female. The result of my inquiry was scandalous. The
Mantis in only too many cases is never sated with embraces and conjugal
feasts. After a rest, of variable duration, whether the eggs have been
laid or not, a second male is welcomed and devoured like the first. A
third succeeds him, does his duty, and affords yet another meal. A
fourth suffers a like fate. In the course of two weeks I have seen the
same Mantis treat seven husbands in this fashion. She admitted all to
her embraces, and all paid for the nuptial ecstasy with their lives.

There are exceptions, but such orgies are frequent. On very hot days,
when the atmospheric tension is high, they are almost the general rule.
At such times the Mantis is all nerves. Under covers which contain large
households the females devour one another more frequently than ever;
under the covers which contain isolated couples the males are devoured
more eagerly than usual when their office has been fulfilled.

I might urge, in mitigation of these conjugal atrocities, that the
Mantis does not commit them when at liberty. The male, his function once
fulfilled, surely has time to wander off, to escape far away, to flee
the terrible spouse, for in my cages he is given a respite, often of a
whole day. What really happens by the roadside and in the thickets I do
not know; chance, a poor schoolmistress, has never instructed me
concerning the love-affairs of the Mantis when at liberty. I am obliged
to watch events in my laboratory, where the captives, enjoying plenty of
sunshine, well nourished, and comfortably lodged, do not seem in any way
to suffer from nostalgia. They should behave there as they behave under
normal conditions.

Alas! the facts force me to reject the statement that the males have
time to escape; for I once surprised a male, apparently in the
performance of his vital functions, holding the female tightly
embraced--but he had no head, no neck, scarcely any thorax! The female,
her head turned over her shoulder, was peacefully browsing on the
remains of her lover! And the masculine remnant, firmly anchored,
continued its duty!

Love, it is said, is stronger than death! Taken literally, never has an
aphorism received a more striking confirmation. Here was a creature
decapitated, amputated as far as the middle of the thorax; a corpse
which still struggled to give life. It would not relax its hold until
the abdomen itself, the seat of the organs of procreation, was attacked.

The custom of eating the lover after the consummation of the nuptials,
of making a meal of the exhausted pigmy, who is henceforth good for
nothing, is not so difficult to understand, since insects can hardly be
accused of sentimentality; but to devour him during the act surpasses
anything that the most morbid mind could imagine. I have seen the thing
with my own eyes, and I have not yet recovered from my surprise.

Could this unfortunate creature have fled and saved himself, being thus
attacked in the performance of his functions? No. We must conclude that
the loves of the Mantis are fully as tragic, perhaps even more so, than
those of the spider. I do not deny that the limited area of the cage may
favour the massacre of the males; but the cause of such butchering must
be sought elsewhere. It is perhaps a reminiscence of the carboniferous
period when the insect world gradually took shape through prodigious
procreation. The Orthoptera, of which the Mantes form a branch, are the
first-born of the insect world.

Uncouth, incomplete in their transformation, they wandered amidst the
arborescent foliage, already flourishing when none of the insects sprung
of more complex forms of metamorphosis were as yet in existence: neither
butterflies, beetles, flies, nor bees. Manners were not gentle in those
epochs, which were full of the lust to destroy in order to produce; and
the Mantis, a feeble memory of those ancient ghosts, might well preserve
the customs of an earlier age. The utilisation of the males as food is a
custom in the case of other members of the Mantis family. It is, I must
admit, a general habit. The little grey Mantis, so small and looking so
harmless in her cage, which never seeks to harm her neighbours in spite
of her crowded quarters, falls upon her male and devours him as
ferociously as the Praying Mantis. I have worn myself out in trying to
procure the indispensable complements to my female specimens. No sooner
is my capture, strongly winged, vigorous and alert, introduced into the
cage than he is seized, more often than not, by one of the females who
no longer have need of his assistance and devoured. Once the ovaries are
satisfied the two species of Mantis conceive an antipathy for the male;
or rather they regard him merely as a particularly tasty species of
game.





Next: THE MANTIS - THE NEST

Previous: THE MANTIS - THE CHASE



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