I loved bugs as a kid. I was amazed at the variety of what I could find just in my back yard but even more so by the power and beautiful design that was packed into such tiny, delicate bodies. That sense of wonder never disappeared, but other pursuits took over in adulthood. Fast forward a couple of decades or so to the day I saw a live praying mantis offered on eBay. A live praying mantis?? I’d never seen one in person. I couldn’t resist. When the package arrived, I popped off the lid of the condiment take-out cup he’d been shipped in. Out of the cup and onto my finger stepped a tiny green nymph. And then it raised its tiny head and looked at me. It was captivating, a living work of art. Perfect. I was hooked.
Out of the cup and onto my finger stepped a tiny green nymph. And then it raised its tiny head and looked at me.
As I began raising more mantids and expanded my menagerie to include exotic species, I learned (sometimes the hard way) the differences in how each kind moved, fed, and matured. The wonder I felt at this new world that had opened up to me compelled me to try to capture their beauty through photographs. I hope my appreciation of these fascinating creatures will be contagious.
You have nothing to photograph if you can’t keep the little buggers alive. So getting a feel for what each type of mantis wants in terms of food, temperature, and humidity is key. Some like crickets. Others will only eat flying food. Most nymphs start eating tiny fruit flies and then move on to bigger sizes within a couple of weeks. (Who knew fruit flies came in different sizes??) Then they graduate to different types of flies – stable, house, and blue bottle. Since mantids will only eat live food, part of the learning curve was figuring out how to raise and keep the feeder insects alive.
Temperature and humidity are critical for healthy growth, and each species has its ideal temp and humidity ranges. Mantids grow in size by molting, usually undergoing 5-7 molts before they reach adulthood. There are abundant opportunities for something to go wrong. If the humidity isn’t right, they may die during a molt or wind up crippled or misshapen. Since many mantids are cannibalistic, they usually need to be kept in separate containers. This adds another level of complexity to the process – uniting the prey with the predator in dozens of separate housing containers. Let’s just say that escapee feeders are not uncommon. One upside to this hobby, though– having a house year-round that sounds like a summer night with the song of crickets.
Perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of this journey has been seeing how the different kinds of mantids change as they mature, and how the males and females show distinctive traits. For example, the Idolomantis spends the majority of its life as a white-ish beige creature, and after its last molt its body turns into a brilliant, colorful canvas of reds, purples, and greens. Both the nymphs and the adult versions are shown in these pictures.
The Ghost Mantis females can be identified by a flat-topped swirl rising off the tops of their heads, whereas the male sports a tall, lacy mantilla that would make any fashionista proud.
Since I tend to think of mantids as tiny sculptures, I choose an object for it to stand on that I think will be the right “pedestal” to complement the mantid’s color, size and shape. I prefer natural objects like pods, flowers, or sticks that have some type of architectural quality to them.
My “studio” setup is quite simple — a black velvet backdrop on the side of a table with a lazy susan turntable on which the “pedestal” is perched so that I can easily turn it as needed. My very professional lighting kit (goose-necked LED lights from IKEA) is clamped around the sides of the table to allow maximum flexibility for light direction and quick changes in position. I prefer a dramatic lighting to try and highlight the beauty of their shape and coloring
When all is ready, I gently encourage the mantis to stand on the pedestal and pose. Naturally, given the language barrier, the posing part is a bit hit or miss. Sometimes they sit and sometimes they hop off. Sometimes they smile, sometimes they don’t. Kind of like a toddler at the annual family photoshoot, only worse. Patience is a virtue. Occasionally, the patience really pays off. The “Easy Rider” picture is a good example. This mantis was posed on a piece of curved vine I had found (about 2 inches long) that kind of looked like a bike. I captured the shot at the perfect confluence of events: (1) I got the mantis to assume a defensive pose, with wings flared, antennae back, and (2) his side leg extended to the side of the “wheel”, like he was ready to ride. That is one bad-ass motorcycle mantis!
Kristin Lingren is a lawyer who lives in Chicago and loves to travel and explore.