Choosing your mantis
Regardless of which mantis species you choose, please check to be sure that it is a local species before releasing any. The two species most readily available in the US, which can also often be found in the wild in the US, are the European and Chinese mantises. Both species are easy to take of and require less direct care than many other species. As with any animal, responsible care-giving is the first and foremost aspect to rearing a mantis.
Tenodera sinensis, the Chinese mantis, can be raised with ease. They can do well at room temperature (if you do not keep your house unusually cool) and take most forms of food readily. In addition to the handful of online mantis suppliers, they can often be purchased as an organic pest control from a garden store in the form of egg sacs (or ootheca) that can contain up to 400 mantis eggs. Some beginner hobbyist like to order these inexpensive egg cases and release the extras that hatch into the garden. Keep in mind if you go this route that if you keep more than one, they will eat each other once they have shed a handful of times. The Chinese mantis is large, robust, easy to care for, and has a classic mantis appearance.
For a more exotic mantis that is still easy to care for, consider the Indian Flower mantis or the Ghost mantis. Unlike the Chinese mantis, these species have not been naturalized to the US and cannot be released into the wild. Releasing a non-native species is a crime and is also morally and socially reprehensible. Indian Flower mantises are small, colorful mantises that will aggressively hunt food within their cage. Like the Chinese mantis, it can be kept at room temperature, but it does better with a heat lamp.
The Ghost mantis is a delight. One of my favorite mantises, it has a truly unique look among the mantises. They are only slightly harder to care for than the Indian or Chinese mantis, being occasionally finicky about food. Individuals can start to reject crickets, forcing you to hand feed them until flies can be ordered and hatch for them eat. More on feeding mantises later.
For beginners I would recommend the Chinese mantis and if you continue in the hobby, a Ghost or Indian next.
Good places to buy mantises
Mantis Pets - great mantis resource for supplies of all kinds. The people who run this store are a delight to work with and I have never had any issue with them.
Mantid Pets - similar to Mantis Pets but with a better selection. I had single hiccup with this place about a year ago when I was sent the wrong species. It took some convincing to show them that I had indeed been sent the wrong species. Other than this incident, my experiences with them have been good and reviews from other keepers are generally positive.
Amazon - Chinese, European, and similar species can be found at this site. I do not have experience with ordering mantises from Amazon but they provide the cheaper option of purchasing eggs instead of individuals, as is done through the other two sites listed here.
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Step 1: Materials for Habitats
Ventilated container - The enclosure for you mantis should be fully ventilated on at least one side. The size of the slats or holes are not important since you will be covering them with a cloth or mesh. The minimum size of the cage is determined in light of the expected size of the adult mantis. The length and width of the cage should be at least twice the length of the adult form of the mantis, and the height thrice the length of the mantis. This will give it ample room to shed and hunt. The maximum size of the cage is more subjective and species-dependent. The larger the cage, the harder time the mantis will have in finding its food. For species that will not chase food or descend to the bottom of the cage for food, having a too large of an enclosure can kill the mantis through starvation.
Critter Carries and similar products are good, easy cages to modify and are readily available in most pet stores. This tutorial will use one as an example. Other mantis keepers in the hobby, especially people who keep them in larger numbers, use deli cups as containers. These can be found in grocery and dollar stores with ease and make an excellent early cage for nymphs until they grow into their larger enclosure. Most mantises will need or do better with two different-sized enclosures: a smaller one for nymphs and a larger one for sub-adult and adult mantises.
Soft mesh - The mesh serves two purposes. The first is to hold in the prey food and the second is to provide a surface from which the mantis can molt. For nymph and young mantises a thin cloth can be used. While not ideal, paper towels will work in a pinch. For a better-looking option, look for a thin fabric with holes small enough to not allow for the passage of fruit flies. Adult mantises will need a larger mesh. The larger mesh allows for better airflow and is safer location from which to shed. Mesh with the ideal size can be a bit of trick to find. Too small of a mesh and it becomes a poor place from which to shed, while mesh too close to limb size will result in them frequently getting their limbs caught and then broken. Also, too large of a mesh will allow prey food to escape the enclosure. When choosing mesh for adult mantises, avoid metal screens. The wire from which it is made can hurt mantises if the edge of the mesh is exposed at all. In this tutorial I use a rug anti-skid mesh purchased from Ikea, which has soft strands.
Substrate - The purpose of the substrate is to provide a consistent source of moisture to help maintain humidity within the the enclosure. Depending on the species, a high relative humidity may be essential. Coconut fiber and paper towels are common substrates. Moss, while more aesthetically appealing, is usually avoided because it provides an excellent hiding spot for prey food. For species that are dry tolerant, it isn't uncommon for keepers to leave the cage bare.
Decoration - This is up to you, the keeper. Generally, natural elements are used but more creative things have been done including a set-up made entirely of color sponges. Depending on the species you keep, the color of the decoration in the habitat can affect the color of the mantis, which is one of the fun and interesting aspects of raising mantises. Avoid any sharp points or edges and be sure to leave ample room in which the mantis can move and shed.
Glue - Any glue that safe for animals can be used in decorating the habitat. Commonly-used glues are hot glue and silicone glue. For this tutorial, silicone glue is used.
Step 2: Setting Up the Habitat
The first step to setting up the habitat is to cut and glue the mesh. Lay the mesh over the lid of the cage and, using the lid as a template, cut a section of mesh that is an inch or two larger than the lid on all sides. Then cut in towards the center from each corner of the mesh 1-2 inches, so that these slices extend almost to each corner of the lid. After pushing the mesh down into the lid, use the cut corners to make the mesh lay flat against it. Run glue in each corner of the lid and add a few occasional dabs throughout the top. You can glue on some of your decoration and sticks. Keep in mind that almost all of the life of the mantis will be spent hanging upside-down from the lid of the cage.
Next, cut a section of mesh to fit one side of the interior of cage. Glue this section to the inside of the cage making sure it lays flat against the cage. Smaller mantises can get trapped between this section of mesh and the cage if it isn't taut enough, leading to death. I avoid gluing the perimeter of the mesh for aesthetic reasons, but if you are worried about the mantis getting trapped feel free to glue the whole section.
Once the glue has dried, rinse out the cage. Be sure to rinse where the glue was applied to remove any chemical residue or residual tack. If the glue is at all tacky, do not place a mantis in the cage. While it easy for us to remove our finger from tacky glue, a mantis can easily become entrapped in it, often maiming or killing the mantis. Then fill the bottom half of the habitat with an inch of substrate. Your cage is now ready for your mantis!
If you have a cold house or a mantis that needs a warmer environment, be sure to place a warm lamp it near the habitat. Do not place the lamp too close to a plastic cage as they can be melted or you can overheat the mantis. If your mantis has special temperature requirements consider picking up a thermometer. Start with the lamp far away from the cage and move closer until the needed temperature is met. CLF and LED lights are not suitable for use as a heat lamp because they produce little heat. An incandescent or ceramic bulb will be needed. A standard 60 watt incandescent bulb is suitable, though they are starting to become harder to find as other types of bulbs arrive on the market. I have found not any advantage to using UVA, UVB, or similar reptile heat bulbs, nor is there any documentation to show that they are necessary for mantis rearing.
Step 3: Feeding
Fruit flies - For nymph mantises, this is your go-to food. Pet supplies stores like Petco and any reptile store should carry a supply of them. They come in two sizes; the small Drosophila melanogaster and the larger Drosophila hydei. They come in cultures which will self-sustain for a few weeks. When buying from pet stores look for containers without a lot of dead flies in the bottom and with some flies visible in the excelsior (the shreds of paper, wood, etc). Fruit flies only live for about a day, so dumping a large number in the cage will just reduce the rate of production your fruit fly culture while putting a lot of soon-to-be-dead flies in their cage. Mantises will only eat live prey. Fruit flies are usually suitable food for most species until after the third shed of the mantis.
Crickets - Crickets are usually available at the same stores that sell fruit flies. Crickets are handy because they come in many sizes, making them an easy food source to use for the rest of the mantises adult life. A lot of hobbyist mantis keepers frown on using crickets, and they have some good reasons for that, but their easy availability makes them ideal for most beginners. It may seem surprising, but crickets are predators and can and will kill mantises. Luckily, this can be easily avoided. When feeding your mantis crickets, never give them more than they will eat quickly. A mantis with a full stomach will ignore crickets running around the cage, and that is when danger can arise. If a hungry cricket catches a mantis while it is shedding it will kill and eat the mantis, and a cricket that is not hungry can cause the mantis to lose hold of its perch and fall, which can be fatal during a shed. If large crickets are used, the mantis can be overwhelmed and eaten. Generally the cricket should larger than the mantis's head but smaller than half the size of the mantis. Some mantises are a little food shy while others are much more aggressive. The more food shy the mantis, the smaller that cricket will need to be. Ghost mantises can be food shy and prefer smaller crickets while Chinese and Indian mantises will readily take on crickets equal to them size (though you should still only feed them ones about half their size). The most important thing with crickets is be sure that they were not fed on carrots! Crickets that are fed carrots become poisonous to mantises. Within a week of eating carrot-fed crickets, the mantis's mouth will turn black and then will expel a black viscous liquid either orally or anally, followed by death. Luckily, Petco and other major pet stores do not feed their crickets on carrots. If you go with a mom and pop store, be sure inquire what about what they feed their crickets before purchasing from them.
House and blue bottle flies - Some mantises are pickier eaters than others. This can vary between individuals and species. If you run into a mantis who won't eat and it isn't due to a health issue or preparing to shed, you may need to switch to house or blue bottle flies to get it to eat again. House flies are smaller and are suitable for mantises just off of fruit flies, while blue bottle flies are suitable for mantises through adulthood. Since they are smaller than crickets, it can take a lot of flies to fill an adult mantis. Flies will generally come as pupae which can take up to a week to hatch. You can order in bulk and stagger adding pupae into the cage, or you can hatch the flies to allow you to gut them. Hatching them is more work but better for the mantis. Flies can be placed in the refrigerator to slow them down and allow you to easily catch and release them into the mantis's cage.
Other foods - Pet store sell many other feeder insects. Roaches are the preferred food source for serious mantis keepers, who generally raise their own. Wax worms and meal worms are also suitable for mantises. Extra work is usually required for these other food sources because they will hide themselves in the substrate. Generally, I flip the lid of the cage over (with the mantis now standing upright on it) and then present them with the meal worm or similar prey until they catch it and start eating it. Once they have a good start, I flip the lid back over, place it back on top of the habitat, and move to the next mantis. Orin's book (linked at the end of this instructable) has a lot of good information on alternative food sources and raising your own feeder insects if you decide to go that route.
How often to feed them - You should offer your mantis food every two or three days. This can be done by placing a few feeder insects in their cage in the morning. If you are feeding them crickets, any that have not yet been consumed should be removed at the end of the day. A mantis will consume food until their abdomen is round and distended which can be dangerous for larger species. Their abdomen can fold if it becomes too heavy while they hang from the ceiling of the cage. If this happens, the cage will need to be placed at an angle or set up in such away that is not a flat ceiling surface. This will force the mantis to perch in a way that won't worsen the fold in their abdomen. A folded abdomen can kill a mantis. Adult female mantises are particularly greedy eaters but the danger of folding abdomens is greatly lessened at adulthood. The female mantis will also have a large full-looking abdomen a week or two into adulthood. While they appear full of food, they are instead preparing to lay eggs and should continue to be fed. Adult male mantises will rarely if ever feed as much as they did while maturing. Their abdomens as a adults can appear thin and empty and they will eat less food and less often.
Step 4: Raising Praying Mantises
Misting - Mantises need water and humidity to survive. Generally, you should mist the habitat once a day or every other day. An easy test to know whether the habitat is too dry is if the water drops on the wall of the cage are gone in less than half an hour. If they are, you need to mist them more often, while if the drops persist longer than that or prolonged condensation appears, you need to mist them less. A thirsty mantis will also drink drops of water off the side of the cage. The humidity in your home will change with the time of year. Be mindful of your mantis's cage and how she acts to know if you need more or less misting throughout the year.
Heat - The mantises recommended in this instructable can do well with temperatures in the low 70s. If you keep your home colder than that, a small desk lamp can be used to keep them warm enough. This is covered in detail in step 2.
Grooming - When the mantis itself is misted, it will start to clean itself often starting with the forearms and then the eyes,cleaning them like a cat cleans itself with its paws. It may appear at times the mantis is eating itself. This is never the case. The mantis is just cleaning itself. Most of the time will be spent on ends of each of their legs and their antennae.
Molting/shedding - As the mantis ages it will molt. When a mantis is preparing to molt, it will hang upside down and stop eating a day or two before the molt occurs. It is important to remove any uneaten food at this time. The actual shed only takes a short time. A small tear will appear at the top of the neck from which the mantis will slowly emerge. It will then hang by the old skin and abdomen as the new skin starts to harden. Within about half an hour it will kick free from the old skin and hang from the cage for several more hours, and then start to move around. The mantis should not be handled or fed for a day after shedding. If you missed the signs that a molt was coming and it starts while there is still food in their cage, just leave it be. It isn't ideal but it is much more dangerous to interrupt the mantis while shedding than to leave food running around in the cage.
Molting is when most accidental mantis deaths occur. If they fall during a shed they can become deformed. If they do not successfully shed they can become trapped in their skin. Most of the time this is fatal but not always immediately. A deformed mantis often isn't able to catch prey and will slowly starve to death. An acceptable way to put down a mantis that can't eat down is to place it in the freezer. If deformation is only slight, they sometimes can survive until the next molt, which will often heal the deformation. There has been a lot written on this subject and if this happens to you refer to the links at the end of this instructable for help.
A mantis will shed the first time usually within two weeks of hatching and then there is a month or more between every shed after that. How often they shed depends on how much and how often they are fed and how warm they are kept. A mantis that is fed until full every day and kept on the warmer side of their temperature range will age faster than a mantis fed every few days and kept at the cooler end of their range.
Loss of limb - Accidents can occur while feeding or handling your mantis causing a loss of limb. While this can be distressing to the keeper, if this happens with a mantis that is not yet an adult, the limb can grow back. When the mantis sheds, a smaller version of the limb will sometimes appear which will grow successively back to normal size with each shed.
Habitat cleaning - Cleaning the cage is usually done for the keeper's benefit. To clean the habitat, first move the mantis into another container. Remove any decoration and dump the substrate, skin, and refuse into the garbage. Using hot water clean the cage and decorations. Avoid the use of soaps and bleaches as any residue from them will kill your mantis. If you need to disinfect the cage, a small amount of bleach or dishsoap can be used but thorough rinsing will be essential for the cage to remain habitable to mantises.
If at any time fungus appears in the cage change the substrate and clean the cage immediately. Fungus often appears on mantis refuse and will commonly look like white hair. The appearance of fungus can be sign that you are keeping the cage too humid.
Handling - I do not recommend handling your mantis. If you do, there are few simple rules to follow that can help protect you and the mantis. To pick up your mantis, place one hand a few inches in front of the mantis and with your other hand gently poke the mantis in the abdomen (meaning poke them on the butt from behind). The mantis will usually move slowly forward onto your hand. Sometimes this startles the mantis and it will jump forward. Don't jerk your hand away. If a leg is already on your hand while the others are on the cage, jerking your hand suddenly away can rip off a leg. The mantis will probably move slowly around your had once picked up. If it moves up your arm, just place a hand in front of it for it to crawl onto. Us the same process to put it back as you used to pick it up. Adult mantises may fly instead of walking when you use this method, which can be quite startling. Dropping your mantis or allowing it to jump from your hand to the ground can be fatal to your mantis, especially adult female mantises. Adult female mantises generally become too heavy to fly within two weeks of maturing. That weight will kill them if they fall too great a distance.
Treat food - An enjoyable hands-off way to interact with your mantis is treat food or hand feeding. Mantises enjoy eating honey. To feed your mantis honey, place some on the end of a small stick. Touch the mantis's mouth gently with the honey and it should start to feed on it. Many species will do a kind of adorable wiggle dance while eating honey. It's best to only feed honey to older mantises, as it can become a dangerous sticky trap for small ones. Mantises can also be feed raw meat in a pinch. Using a similar method just place a small amount of meat against the mantis' mouth and it should start feed on it. Neither honey nor meat should be used a main food source.
Age - Mantises generally live for about year. Once reaching adulthood, female mantises will last for at least a few months while males generally die after a month or two. In extreme old age mantises will have visibly reduced coordination, fall from perches, and may cease eating and refuse all further food. Large dark black spots can appear in their eyes reducing their ability to see. Since they're no longer shedding, their exoskeleton will get progressively more fragile and it isn't unusual to see limb loss as a result. Near death, the mantis will lie on the ground, only moving if you touch them. At this point death is unavoidable and will likely occur in a matter of hours or a few days.
Sexing - Mantises are sexually dimorphic. At early instars it can be difficult or impossible to sex mantises but starting at the fourth instar the abdomen counting method becomes a reliable way to sex your mantis. Male mantises have more segments on the abdomen than female mantises. Female mantises also have a much larger final segment to the their abdomen, usually larger than or equal in size to the preceding segment. At adulthood males will have larger antennae than females but will be markedly smaller in size when compared to females.
Egg laying - Regardless of whether you breed your mantises, females will lay ootheca at adulthood. She generates a kind of frothy mass into which she places her eggs. The mass generally is affixed to the ceiling of the cage but can be also found on any high placed sticks or other decoration. Ooths will be infertile if she hasn't been bred, with the exception of a few species that are capable of asexual reproduction.
Breeding - I do not recommend breeding mantises for beginners. Get some practice caring for mantises and then refer to the sources listed at the end of the instructable if you are interested in pursuing breeding.
Other behaviors - In addition to the ones already mentioned there are a few behaviors worth knowing. Mantises wobble when standing or walking. The exact reason isn't known, but there are two main theories. The first is that the wobble works as mimicry of a leaf in the wind, acting as camouflage. The second is that helps them judge distance by creating depth perception through the motion of their eyes.
When a mantis is threatened it will rear up on its hind legs and display the insides of the forearms. When further threatened it will hold the front legs straight up into the air and begin striking and biting what is threatening them.
When a mantis is nervous or curious, it will adopt a similar position but without revealing the inside of the forearms. It will actively follow with its head whatever has caught its attention. If it is a prey insect, the mantis will often slowly lean forward, partially opening the arms before snatching at the prey.
Step 5: Terminology, Further Reading, and Other Resources
"Mantises" and "mantids" - When reading about mantises you will see different ways to refer to them in the plural. "Mantids" is the old term for referring to multiple mantises. However, relatively recently mantis taxonomy has been restructured. They used to be placed in a single family (Mantidae) from which the term "mantids" comes. The order Mantidea has since been split into fourteen different families, making the term "mantids" somewhat confusing, since it only referred to the now-obsolete concept of the Mantidae family. As a result, "mantises" has become the accepted plural term with "mantids" declining in usage.
Nymph - Nymph refers to a mantis that is freshly hatched. It is sometimes used to refer to any mantis that is not yet adult, but the more correct use is for a new mantis only. "L1-LX", "instar", and "sub-adult" - The age of a mantis is defined by the number of times it has shed. A hatched mantis is L1, a mantis who has shed once is L2, etc. A "sub-adult" mantis is properly one in the shed directly before becoming adult, but the term is sometimes used for any mantis older than a nymph and younger than an adult. When purchasing mantises on-line always refer to the number of times they have shed to avoid any confusion. Instar also refers to the number of sheds. EG: "This orchid mantis is L4" and "This mantis is in its fourth instar" are synonymous. The number of times a mantis sheds depends on its gender and species. The references at the end of this instructable list the number of sheds a mantis should be expected to go through.
Ooth and Ootheca - This refers to the spongy egg sac that mantises lay. Generally ooths that are sold are considered to be fertile unless otherwise noted. Ooths that are labeled for pinning are infertile.
Diapause - This refers to whether the mantis or ootheca needs a hibernation or cold period. For beginners I would avoid mantises that require a diapause. For Chinese and European mantises, which are suitable for beginners, some caresheets recommend a diapause for their ooths, but in the experience of many mantis keepers (including my experience) it has been shown they can do well without one.
Further reading and excellent resources
http://mantidforum.net A strong community of mantis hobbyists
http://www.mantisonline.eu/ An excellent resource for the care of individual mantises and information about them
http://www.mantispets.com/ Resource for supplies and mantises
http://www.mantidpets.com/ Resource for supplies and mantises
Keeping the Praying Mantis by Orin McMonigle - Undoubtedly the best resource out there on raising praying mantises. Comprehensive and effective, this book is a must if you intend to go beyond basic mantis husbandry. Purchase the softcover edition over the hardcover edition, as it contains better photographs and is more up-to-date.
http://photo.net/photos/siwanowicz One of the better mantis and insect photographers on the web
https://www.youtube.com/user/precarious333/ An excellent videographer with access to particularly fine specimens