Mantises are large, slender insects that are generally known as praying mantises or mantids. The different species range in size from less than 1 inch to upwards of 6 inches in length. This includes the wings which extend beyond the end of the abdomen.
Mantises are predators, feeding mainly on other insects, although they will sometimes target hummingbirds as well as other small animals. If they are confined, mantises are likely to turn cannibalistic and eat one another.
They are often colored a protective green or brown, making them hard to see on foliage. This allows them to wait in ambush where they patiently stalk their prey. However, once they are ready to strike, they do so with lightning speed. They attack with their large front legs so quickly that it is hard to see with the naked eye. In addition, they have spikes on their front legs to skewer and pin the victim for eating.
A few species, called flowering mantises, are sometimes wildly ornate with some looking so much like part of a flower that insects collecting nectar will go right up to the mantid and become its next meal.
Praying mantises hold their forelimbs in a distinctive way that makes them look like they are praying, hence the descriptive name they have been given. Mantids use their excellent vision and ability to rotate their heads to detect the movements of other insects which are their main source of food.
The praying mantis was accidentally introduced into the United States in 1899 on nursery stock from southern Europe. This was at a time when Gypsy Moth Caterpillars were ravaging important plants in the eastern states. The praying mantises found these caterpillars good eating, and were quickly recognized as a beneficial predator.
However, the tendency of mantids to be cannibalistic made it difficult for the population to become large enough to have much significance in depleting the caterpillar population. This propensity for cannibalism is often taken to the extreme during mating. The male literally takes his life in his own hands when he seeks out a female for mating. The female mantis will sometimes eat her smaller male partner immediately after mating or will even sometimes bite off his head and start eating while copulation is still in progress.