Larry Caplan has served as the extension horticulture educator in Vanderburgh County, Indiana, for more than 27 years. He has won several national awards for his work with disabled gardeners, teaching about alternatives to pesticides, and for his weekly column with the Evansville Courier and Press. He can be reached at

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The Perils of Beneficial Insects
by Larry Caplan       #Humor   #Insects   #Pests

So you think that beneficial insects are the answer to all your pest problems? Then gather 'round, my children, and hear the twisted tale of "The Praying Mantises that Almost Took Over Evansville."   

Earlier one spring a few years ago, I found a couple of praying mantis egg sacs while pruning some shrubs. I figured they would make excellent additions to my insect appreciation lesson I was to give in a few weeks. So, I naively brought the egg sacs to my office, and placed them in an insect collection box.

I eagerly awaited their hatching. And awaited. And awaited some more. After a couple of weeks, I needed the bug box for one of my other critters. I put the mantis egg cases on my desk, and didn't think any more about them. Until the next morning ...

I came into my office, and took a call from a farmer. As I tried to speak intelligently about pasture improvement, I suddenly felt like I was being watched. I glanced down at my notepad, and noticed a tiny praying mantis staring at me. Movement to the left caught my eye, where I saw another baby mantis crawl out from under a pamphlet. Then another one scurried out from behind the phone. My mouth went dry as I noticed two more on my computer, and four or five on the wall. When one dropped off of the ceiling, I knew I had a disaster on my hands. I slammed down the phone, grabbed my bug box, and proceeded to hold my first "mantis roundup."

By the way, if you are ever in a similar situation, take some advice from someone who learned the hard way. Baby praying mantises are too delicate to actually be picked up. You need to slide a piece of paper under them, and then gently carry them to your collection box.

At this point, one of my master gardeners came in. He took one look at me holding a plastic box with dozens of praying mantises crawling in, out and over the container, and sprang into action. That is, after he was through laughing. In about an hour, we had corralled somewhere between 60 or 70 baby praying mantises.

"What are you going to do now?" my volunteer asked. To be truthful, I hadn't thought that far ahead. I supposed I could let them go outside, but it was freezing cold and they’d never survive. Besides, I’d really wanted to raise them for teaching purposes. Then I remembered that I'd seen a company's catalog that sold kits for raising praying mantises in a classroom. I grabbed the phone and dialed frantically.

"I have a praying mantis emergency!" I shouted to the startled sales lady. "I need your praying mantis nursery kit, and I need it today!"

"Of course, sir" she replied after a moment's hesitation. "That kit comes with 30 test tubes to keep the praying mantises separate, a supply of wingless fruit flies to feed them, and two praying mantis egg sacs for you to hatch in your classroom."

"Can you ship that to me without the eggs?" I asked despairingly, as 50 baby mantises glared at me from their plastic prison. Apparently a dozen or so had already been devoured by their elder brothers and sisters.

"I'm not sure," she replied doubtfully. "I'll have to check with my supervisor. I can call you back later today ..."

"Never mind!" I cried. "I can't wait! Just ship me what you've got overnight!"

Saturday morning, my wife took the package from the UPS man. She took one look inside, and pushed it at me. "Most women get flowers from their husbands," she declared with disgust. "I get bugs!"

Following the instructions that came with the kit, it only took me a couple of hours to put one praying mantis and three wingless fruit flies in each of the test tubes. I figured the escaped fruit flies would sooner or later be caught by the escaped praying mantises, making for a balanced ecosystem in my kitchen.

I kept the entire menagerie in my office, on my desk. As long as I remembered to feed them wingless fruit flies every other day, they appeared to do OK. I eventually let the entire colony loose in my garden, and the gardens of about a dozen volunteers. However, a dozen years later, I still get the uncomfortable feeling of being watched.

Photos courtesy of Larry Caplan.


Posted: 01/14/13   RSS | Print


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