Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Cannibalistic Preying Mantis Bride

If you've heard anything about the mating habits of preying mantises, it's probably that the female likes to dine on the male--a dinner course during intercourse. But I'd argue that the Cannibalistic Preying Mantis Bride is the first documented insect urban legend.

Oh honey, you're so cute I could just eat you up!
Photo by Eric Bégin 
Here's a translated text from J. Henri Fabre's 1907 Souvenirs Entomologiques, which probably gave the legend its start:

"The male, absorbed in the performance of his vital functions, holds the female in a tight embrace. But the wretch has no head; he has no neck; he has hardly a body. The other, with her muzzle turned over her shoulder continues very placidly to gnaw what remains of the gentle swain. And, all the time, that masculine stump, holding on firmly, goes on with the business! ... A headless creature, an insect amputated down to the middle of the chest, a very corpse persists in endeavoring to give life. It will not let go until the abdomen, the seat of the procreative organs, is attacked. Eating the lover after consummation of marriage, making a meal of the exhausted dwarf, henceforth good for nothing, can be understood, to some extent, in the insect world, which has no great scruples in matters of sentiment; but gobbling him up during the act goes beyond the wildest dreams of the most horrible imagination. I have seen it with my own eyes and have not yet recovered from my astonishment."

Now I'm not suggesting that the famed French entomologist made this up--but a crucial detail is that these were captive mantises--and the gravid females may have been famished. Experiments conducted in a natural setting, with hidden observers, show that a natural mantis encounter begins with a dance by the male to placate the female. She responds with ritualized movements of her own, which progress from a menacing stance to one of acquiescence. The male then climbs onto the female's back, deposits his sperm into a special chamber, and leaves with his head intact.

There are over 2000 species of preying mantises, so it's certainly possible that some of them are femme fatales. But most female mantises have gotten a bad rap. The legend of the Cannibalistic Preying Mantis Bride has been around for over 100 years--it's about time Snopes.com got around to debunking it.

14 comments:

  1. :-) and the myth is transported by Annie Dillard via a funny passage in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in which she quotes Fabre  ( to her credit, she too points out it is only in captivity), but then she goes on to say, "A chemical produced in the head of the male insect says, in effect, 'No, don't go near her, you fool, she'll eat you alive.' At the same time a chemical in his abdomen says, 'Yes, by all means, now and forever yes.' "  Copyright 1974.

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  2. Oh, Annie! She got a few things wrong in that book, but folks love it anyway!

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  3. I'm so glad you wrote this. Last fall we photographed mating mantises and both seemed to leave the scene with their bodies intact. I thought I must be seeing a second male, and imagined the first one long gone into the hungry jaws of the female. We watched (and videoed) the male dance. Quite charming!

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  4. Here's a link to the video. I thought this mantis looked like it was dancing.
    http://youtu.be/KUuoVEDuyPo

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  5. But,  - but , I was working on a short story - "Love and dinner,"  Now what can I do with it?

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  6. And another colorful metaphor bites the dust, if you'll forgive my choice of verbs.  Thanks for disabusing us of the legendary lady mantis and her bloodthirsty appetite.  Captives of any species rarely behave as they do when free citizens of the world.

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  7. Maybe she was in a bad mood that day... Anyway, my first thought was, can you imagine seeing something like that with your "own eyes?"

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  8. Switch it up to The Cannibalistic Author Bride?

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  9. I'd have have guessed by that fat abdomen that it was the female! Shows what I know!

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  10. Yeeks!
    I love his language thorughout the description--"But the wretch has no head"! 

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  11. Well said, Alice!

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  12. Maybe the females dance too? When I first photographed it, I thought it was the female (such a large creature).

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  13. Oh, Pat.  Leave Annabelle Lechter Mantis alone.   Women have been portrayed as secretaries, cooks, and brood mares for so long, let the other bad-girl reputation ride for another century or so.  Please?

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  14. Yeah--the male dances and then the female dances! (To Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," I believe.)

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