In October, I discovered a praying mantis roaming the side of my house. I was out in the yard clearing leaves and cutting back perennials when I noticed her perched on a pipe. I only pretend not to be scared of bugs, and I was pretty sure mantises can fly—even more alarming—so I gave her a wide berth.
She was still there the next day, and my curiosity got the best of me. I poked at her with a stick to see if she would move in that halting, almost Egyptian way mantises do. She seemed unconcerned. I tried again, readying myself to duck (read: overreact) if she took flight. Nothing. I decided to leave well enough alone.
Except I couldn’t because the next morning she was clutching the screen door with her dainty insect toes. I worried about dislodging her when I opened and closed the door, but she was content to go along for the ride four or five times each day. She stayed there for almost a week, only occasionally repositioning or moving a few inches. Every morning when I opened the main door to leave for school, I wondered whether she’d be there on the storm screen, and every afternoon when I got home, I scanned for her brownish green form as I pulled into my parking spot. She was pretty much part of the house at that point, and I wondered if this was normal mantis behavior. She didn’t look injured, and I wasn’t quite interested enough to do any research, so we simply coexisted for a time.
And then one afternoon I drove up and didn’t see her on the screen. I felt a little pang of sadness, but as I walked up the path to the door, I saw she had just relocated. She was on the doorframe, straddling the hinge. Invested now in her journey, I snapped a photo.
When I opened the door the next day, she was gone for good. I looked around the corners of the house, checked her pipe, even searched the trunk of a nearby tree in the pre-dawn light. She was gone, but she had left something behind.
Much has been said about the female praying mantis in particular. Larger than the male of her species (and, it turns out, less able to fly), the female mantis has become the femme fatale of the insect world because of her habit of eating her mate after sex. While this is certainly intriguing, I’d like to highlight something else, something that sets her apart from many other members of the animal world: the female mantis dies after laying her eggs. Generally living from just spring through fall, the mother mantis spends her days as a pretty vicious predator, eating crickets, spiders, beetles, the occasional hummingbird, and then yes, she sometimes eats her mate. Energized and fertilized, she lays her egg sac and goes off to die.
Perhaps you’ve wondered how I knew my mantis was a female. I didn’t until that morning when she was gone but a dull brown sac a little bigger than a quarter appeared on the door frame. It was a perfect oval, smooth around the edges but bumpy looking on the surface, almost like a crumpled paper bag.
Mother mantis was dead, but she had left behind the next generation, a sac filled with up to three hundred eggs surrounded by a foamy material called ootheca. She lays them in late fall in cold climates, and the eggs won’t hatch until there are several days in a row that reach sixty or seventy degrees—here in Michigan, that’s likely May or June.
That means these eggs have been on my door all winter and spring. It’s the door I use every day, and I can’t open it now without glancing up at the little brown nub. I’ve personified them in all kinds of ways over the weeks—applauding their patience, feeling a little sad that they’ll never see their mom, wondering what they argue about in there while they’re waiting.
But in recent weeks, I’ve come to think of the eggs a little differently. They’re bound to hatch soon, and the world into which they emerge is quite a different one from when they settled down in October—not that they know or care. For now, they are inside, staying home and staying safe, waiting patiently for the sun. And in these strange days, days when I’ve had a little too much time alone and am more willing than usual to imbue everyday objects with mythical significance, the baby mantises feel a bit like the blood of a lamb painted on my door frame. They are pray-mantising, passover-lambing, protection-granting, hope-renewing.
I think I’ll miss the eggs when they’re gone (though I’d honestly rather not catch the hatching in real time—three hundred tiny mantises sounds vaguely terrifying). I’m curious to see what the sac looks like when they’re gone. Will it retain its shape? Will they punch out a sort of door from which to escape, like a baby chick? Will I be able to look in and see a hollow space—an empty womb?
Happy Easter to you and yours. May you celebrate in new and interesting ways.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.