The Legendary Praying Mantis

Last week, a praying mantis made headlines after being discovered in the Washington National’s outfield during a game against the New York Mets. My sister, knowing my fondness for mantid-kind, alerted me to the story and assured me that the mantis was caught with a baseball glove, wrapped in a towel and carefully escorted from the field to be released elsewhere. A luxury that a mantis in close proximity to my sister may not have been afforded.

The news sparked quite a few discussions with friends regarding whether or not the insect is endangered and/or protected and if it is illegal to kill one. Nearly everyone I spoke to that day and night was certain it was a crime – albeit a difficult law to enforce. By dinner time, we Googled and found lots of hits with the terms: “myth,” “urban legend” and “$50 fine.” The short answer is: No, it is not illegal to kill a praying mantis BUT it should be because they are beyond beneficial for your garden, farm and outdoor life. Here’s why:

  • Praying mantises are 24/7 predators of harmful/annoying insects like mosquitoes, flies, aphids, roaches, beetles, grasshoppers and night-dwelling moths.
  • Even small, newborn mantises are hungry and will immediately begin feeding on the smaller pests.
  • They’re just plain awesome. Their triangular heads can turn 180 degrees and their compound eyes can detect movement up to 60 feet away.

An exact history of the myth is hard to isolate. It appears to date back quite a few decades (to the 1950s) and seems to have been born in the creative, collective imaginations of backyard gardeners. My best guess is that after witnessing the healing power the mantis and its prayer pose have on pest-ridden patches of produce, household rules about protecting them popped up.

While I feel some journalistic duty to report here that mantis homicide is not technically a crime, I’d like to propose that we continue to perpetuate this fantastic myth and protect these awesome creatures. If it means getting my sister a mantis-moving baseball glove, so be it.

*Special thanks to Rebecca Carter, John Rorapaugh and Jennifer Beidel for their thoughtful conversations that contributed to this post.

Bug-Lover Walks Onto a Production Farm

“Oooooohh look at this happy little caterpillar I found! I’m just going to move him over to the fennel where he will have plenty to eat, k?”

Not exactly. Although the pollinating butterflies these cuties become are very welcome at organic production farms, their larva stage is better nurtured in say… a nearby demonstration garden or conservancy. Lucky for me, I just landed a gig working in a new Loudon County, VA community, Willowsford, built around conservation, sustainable cultivation, real food, really cool farmers, and a really great garden.

Chances are, I will be doing a lot of posts born from experiences at Willowsford Farm throughout the 2012 growing season so for now, here are the top ten highlights from Week One:

10.) The masterminds behind this community are incredibly down-to-earth, determined, and committed to conservation as much as they are committed to the growth of the farm (in terms of acreage, value-added products, biodiversity, and profitability).
9.) The bees and their keeper are going to be producing local honey and educate the community on the importance of pollinators.
8.) The garden is bonkers amazing and already includes: tons of berry bushes, herbs, fruit trees, tomatoes, flowers, and gated entrances as adorable as the open-air structure slated for a classroom/market/shed.
7.) Somehow, I have not picked up a single tick yet – which leads me to number six…
6.) Not only is there deer fencing around the farm – it is around the garden too!
5.) There are tons of Mexican sunflowers, zinnias, and other butterfly-attracting plants in rows between tomatoes, peppers and other edibles which makes times spent harvesting extra beautiful.
4.) Pretty much all-you-can-eat  fresh and healthy “seconds” all day long.
3.) Everyone I have met is keen on bringing our beloved Eco-Goats out to help clear weeds!
2.) Fellow Farmers: Nick, Jen and Kathryn and Farm Manager Mike Snow are pure sunshine – even in the hardest, back-breaking moments, and have gone far out of their way to teach me tricks of the trade, welcome me to the team, and accept the fact that they may have to kill my share of tomato horn worms.

And the number one thing to come out of Willowsford this week (worthy of a photo):

1.) Husk Tomatoes. Sometimes called “Ground Tomatoes” because you harvest them from the ground once they have fallen off of the plant. If you have not yet tried one, step away from the computer and head to the closest farmers market.


Blink Blink: It’s Firefly Season

With so many of us busy as bees on a daily (and nightly) basis, it is easy to find ourselves overlooking the small wonders in our own backyard. Sure, we notice the unusually colorful migratory birds and chat with neighbors about the raccoon breaking into trash cans, but rarely do we stand or sit still long enough to admire how the littlest species (littlest yet visible to the naked eye, that is) communicate with one another and how we can communicate with them.

Insect interactions are incredibly complex and warrant fields and fields of study far more engaging than this little blog post can accommodate, but the call and response mating rituals between fireflies can be observed and contemplated by interested backyard bug-lovers after a few moments reading up on the topic in Carl Zimmer’s 2009 New York Times article: Blink Twice If You Like Me
In the article Dr. Sara Lewis, an evolutionary ecologist at Tufts University, offers insight on the insects and a few patterns to look for when the fireflies emerge – at that perfect evening hour to coincide with winding down – and throughout their fascinating nightlife. Take a few moments to take a closer look and you may observe the following:
  • Each firefly species has its own pattern of flashes, discernible by the number of pulses (flashes) and seconds of delay in between.
  • Fireflies flashing in the air are males. The females stay down in the grass observing and looking for the flash patterns of males of their own species.
  • Female fireflies will sometimes respond with a single flash of their own, always at a precise interval after the males.
If this topic captivates you as much as it does me, you may want to check out this Tufts Now news article about the 2011 findings in Correlated Evolution of Female Neoteny and Flightlessness with Male Spermatophore Production in Fireflies (Coleopetera: Lampyridae) and start practicing the double blink of the male Photinus greeni on your penlight.