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.





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