When the female praying mantis is mating, she does not bite the head off the male with one swift snip: she chomps into it, like an apple. It appears to have the texture of a honeydew melon.
Her mate has tried to avoid this destiny. The male European mantis “uses his feelers to calm her down”, the BBC narrates. But it is already too late. Although chemicals in his brain have told him to stay away from her, the chemicals in his abdomen were more potent. Once he is decapitated, a “separate mini-brain in his tail kicks in and actually speeds up his performance,” says the BBC. The female, meanwhile, cleans her face “like a cat”, writes Annie Dillard in Pilgrim and Tinker Creek. After watching the video I wished I had been decapitated.
Don’t get me wrong: I love mantises so much it is pathetic. They have that quality, like some views of a beautiful city, where it feels that you are seeing them for the first time, every time. Each mantis looks so perfect, so whole and individual. Upright, crisp and new, with tiny chests and long, unblemished bodies covered by green papyrus wings.
If you look at one closely, and it is calm, you can watch its strange pupils follow you side to side: a constellation of black dots in alien eyes, they seem almost to disappear and reconfigure rather than moving like human eyes do. It is an optical illusion: the “pupil” is formed by your perception of light hitting the eye, this is how it appears always to be looking at you. (They have three more eyes – “simple” single-lens eyes – in the middle of their heads, too).
In 2017, scientists fitted cs with “tiny homemade 3D glasses” the New York Times reported, and discovered the first evidence of 3D vision in invertebrates.
This led Dr Jenny Read of the Institute of Neuroscience at Britain’s Newcastle University, who was part of the mantid makeover, to conclude, because the insects are able to see in 3D with a brain so very much smaller than ours, that “either [humans’] visual cortex is doing incredibly impressive things I don’t know about yet, or we could get rid of most of it and replace it with a praying mantis brain.”
When alarmed, they raise their supplicant “toothed arms”, in Gerald Durrell’s words, and spread open their wings to appear menacing. Unfortunately for them, it is adorable, especially when done in group form – it looks like the zombie flash mob dance in Thriller.
In the Egyptian book of the dead, they were “bird-flies”, guiding souls to the underworld. In Chinese folklore, the mantis is known as the “heavenly horse” (t’ien ma) and has inspired a martial arts form, Northern Praying Mantis, the styles of which include “seven star”, “plum blossom” and “secret gate” mantis boxing. The symbolism that feels truest to me is South Africa’s: their appearance in the home means your ancestors are present: it is a blessing.
Except when they are mating. Oh god, don’t remind me of the mating.