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Praying mantid: Scary -- if you're an aphid

With a big appetite, this garden predator also eats beneficial bugs

Praying mantid molts off its old exoskeleton and emerges as an adult. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)

Love them or hate them, this critter ranks among the scariest-looking insects in the Sacramento garden -- especially when it sheds its skeleton.

With their large forelegs, praying mantids were made to grab prey (not prayers). They're typically considered "ambush" predators, latching onto anything that happens into their path.

Their appetite for aphids makes them a garden "good girl." But they are lazy and indiscriminate hunters; they can eat beneficial insects, too. Because they like to hang around flowers, they often catch nectar- or pollen-feeding insects such as butterflies.

"As mantids consume both pests and beneficials, they are difficult to use reliably for biological control," say the UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners.

How they hunt is fascinating. Like a chameleon, they change color to blend in with their surroundings. Then, they sit and wait for unsuspecting dinner to wonder by. Their bulging eyes give them stereo vision that pinpoints their prey; their flexible little necks can spin their triangular heads almost 180 degrees.

When it's time to strike, they spring quickly into action, seizing their quarry with those monstrous forelegs.

Otherwise, they move very slowly, or not at all.

Praying mantid on a rose
The praying mantid, fresh from its old exoskeleton.
Although usually called "praying mantis," mantid is the proper name, reflecting their largest family, Mantidae . More than 2,400 species of mantids and their close relatives are known.

The species that prowls Sacramento gardens reaches about 4 inches long at maturity. It has only one generation per year.

During these late summer months, the mature adults come out in force. While hanging upside down, they molt their exoskeleton (their "skin").

"All insects molt during the immature stages as they mature," explained retired state entomologist Baldo Villegas, Sacramento's Bug Man. "There may be from three to four immature stages or molts."

During this heat wave, a mantid outside my home office window shed its exoskeleton, which looked like a ghost bug hanging on the stem beside it. The fully developed adult mantid emerged, probably hungry.

That's OK, she can have all the aphids she wants. But leave the butterflies alone.


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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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