Praying Mantis

(This column was first published in the January 25, 1993 Buffalo News.)

    My Aunt June was one of those elementary school teachers with whom only a very few of us are lucky enough to spend a year. I say that second hand, of course, because she was not my teacher. I only know from the stories she and others told that she was exceptional.

    Perhaps my favorite was one about a science activity that June sponsored each year in her second grade classes. She had her students search out and bring to school cocoons so that they could watch colorful butterflies emerge from their silken containers. A shelf in her classroom was given over to this display and students checked often in anticipation of these exciting events.

    But then very early one spring a boy brought his find to her desk. Delighted, my aunt held up the plant stem and announced, "Class, look what Jimmy brought: our first cocoon this year. We'll set it here on the shelf and watch carefully for the butterfly or moth that will soon come out."

    What June didn't notice was that this cocoon was different from the others. The size of a walnut, it was attached lengthwise to its branch. Careful examination would have shown that it was hard instead of silky with its brown outer surface composed of tiny congealed bubbles.  Not an entomologist, she can hardly be faulted for this oversight. After all, cocoons do vary considerably in size, shape, and texture.

    We pick up the story the following Monday morning when June arrived at school bright and early only to be confronted by her principal and the school custodian. The principal's first words were, "What have you done?"

    Intimidated, my aunt thought rapidly over her life history. Recalling nothing exceptional of which these two would be aware, she responded simply, "I don't know."

    "Come with us!" and June was unceremoniously marched down the hall to her classroom.

    Bright and cheery in the morning sun, the room at first looked no different from the way she had left it. But on closer inspection she could see little quarter inch insects everywhere: on desks, on walls, on the ceiling, on windows. My aunt claimed that there were millions of them, but the number was more like 300, certainly still enough to infest the room. Before she could back out of the door, she said, several were already entangled in her hair.

    Jimmy's "cocoon" turned out to have been a praying mantis egg case and in the warm classroom the eggs had hatched. Now these miniature versions of this insect predator, three inches long when full grown, were searching the room for food. Finding the pickings slim, many had already turned to attacking their siblings.

    Needless to say, June met her students elsewhere that day while this room was being fumigated and cleaned. And, of course, Jimmy's reputation among his classmates soared.

    I recalled my aunt's story when I visited the remarkable and highly recommended new Buffalo Museum of Science exhibit of giant insect models, including one of a praying mantis. Of course my aunt's experience had the size ratio reversed.

    The mantis is called praying, because its forelegs are held in what appears a subservient posture. In reality, the adjective should probably be "preying" for those legs are poised to spring out, grasp its prey, and spring back so that the beetle, grasshopper, bee, or even butterfly may be leisurely consumed.

    Its depredations on harmful insects are so successful that the praying mantis was once even proposed as our state insect. Noting the mantis's cannibalistic behavior -- the female eats its mate as it is being inseminated -- our predominately male New York legislature instead honored the nine-spotted ladybug.