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NOTES FROM A MUSKY TRAIL HIKER #7: We Love Them. We Love Them Not.

Finally, a few frosts have knocked back the tall grasses and it’s once again more inviting to hike the Musky Trail. When everything in nature starts to look brown and dead, things that were previously hidden can be observed – things like nests (ever been surprised by a massive hornet’s nest in a tree after the leaves dropped?), feathers from molting birds getting ready for winter, animal tracks as the ground gets wetter, and those masters of disguise, praying mantises. I came across this one hanging out on our new trail discovery signs (thank you William Penn Foundation for that funding). My amateur sleuthing tells me it’s a Chinese Mantid – based on size and the vertical stripes on its forehead. The name is a give-away that it’s a non-native mantid; they were introduced to the US about 1900. NJ’s native mantid is the Carolina Mantid.

As a child of the 60’s, I grew up believing – like many people still do – that killing a praying mantis was illegal because they were endangered. This was never true. But praying mantises are on the short list of insects we collectively seem to revere. It could be the whole ‘looks-like-they-are-praying-better-not-make-God-mad’ thing, but we also like them because they are master predators. These carnivores have a voracious appetite for other insects we don’t like. For example, in the 60’s mantises were used to control the gypsy moth population. This summer, I saw many posts on Facebook celebrating the praying mantis anew because they were seen preying on the dreaded Spotted Lantern Fly – whose only other known predator in NJ is a human with a fly swatter or an empty soda bottle. At last! We desperately need a way to control the lantern fly!

But not so fast. The problem is, they are equal-opportunity insect gobblers – just as happy to eat beneficial ones like butterflies and bees. Darn. They eat lantern flies; we love them. They eat good insects; we love them not. They are cool; we love them. They are non-native; we love them not. I’m so conflicted. In the end, I snapped my photograph of this one and left her alone – hoping she would eat several thousand more lantern flies before laying her eggs. A non-native lantern fly I would have mercilessly stepped on; I couldn’t bring myself to do that to a non-native mantis.

Back to the Musky Trail… I leave you with an assignment. On your next autumn trail hike (hopefully on our trail), see if you can find praying mantis egg cases. They will be on branches, and they look like a brown stiff ‘foam’ mass. It is called an ootheca (gotta’ love a word that starts with two vowels). If you find one, don’t be tempted to bring it indoors or you will have 400 mini praying mantises climbing up your walls in the spring. And if you think you want to introduce more mantises to your garden to combat the lantern flies, be sure you only introduce the native Carolina mantis.


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