How to Care for a Pet Praying Mantis
Praying mantids make beautiful and fascinating pets.
In their behavior and mannerisms, they remind me something of uncuddly cats - fastidiously clean, curious, and predatory. Unlike cats, you can't really pet them; however, you also don't have to clean any litter boxes! Cleaning a praying mantis's cage is easy and almost completely odorless, as long as you do it regularly.
Although aloof by nature, praying mantises can also become tame enough over time to be handled. Although they are capable of moving with astonishing speed (and flying), their natural instinct is to lie in wait for prey, so I've been known to curl up with a mantis on my shirt and a book in my lap.
Housing Your Mantis
IMPORTANT: Never keep more than one mantis per cage. Mantids are cannibalistic and will happily eat each other if given the opportunity.
I kept my first mantis in a large glass jar with some cut-up old window screen as a lid, but mantises like their space, and my later mantises were much happier in plastic terrariums with screened lids,such as the one on the right. You can also buy special mantis habitats.
If your mantis home will be stationary, fill the bottom with 1/2 inch or more dirt. This will greatly reduce your maintenance, as you will not need to clean the cage as often.
If you would like the cage to be portable, however, leave the floor bare. You will need to dump out the small, dry, pellet-like droppings and any discarded food particles, such as fly wings, every other day or so, and wash the cage thoroughly once a week or so. Just transfer the mantis to a jar or other smaller cage while you're cleaning.
Fill the cage (stationary or portable) with a variety of twigs and sticks at various heights, preferably a few with leaves still attached. Mantises like to climb around and hide among leaves to ambush their prey. If the mantis is immature, it will also need securely placed sticks or screening to hang on to while it molts. If it falls during molting, it might be unable to get up, and its new skin will harden incorrectly, potentially crippling the mantis. (Yes, learned that one the hard way. More about Muddy the Miracle Mantis below.)
Feeding Your Mantis
Mantids prefer to catch their own food. You can purchase crickets, mealworms, or other insects at many pet stores, but I preferred to catch flies and release them into the mantis's cage. This was made easy for me because my family had a) a compost pile and b) dogs with access to a fenced yard. Others may have to be more creative.
Watching mantises stalk and catch their prey is great fun, but the squeamish should avoid watching them eat, since they eat their prey alive.
After Muddy the Miracle Mantis fell, his legs dried twisted and deformed. Although he could still grasp with surprising (painful!) force with his front legs, he could not catch anything himself. Although he never accepted pre-killed insects, he ate wet cat food with great enthusiasm from a spoon, and seemed to thrive on it. He got water the same way. Muddy survived well into November, long after wild mantises had died.
Healthy mantids can also be trained to eat and drink from a spoon. Approach slowly at first, so you don't startle the mantis, and brush the meat or water gently against its mouth. It may scuttle away the first few times, but will eventually get the picture. When it settles down to eat or drink, you will be able to see its powerful mandibles shovelling food or water into its mouth.
In my experience, mantids prefer ground cat foods, rather than chunk style, but will eat both.
Observing Your Mantis
Mantises are fun to watch. Like cats, they will follow a finger moving back and forth in front of them. (Don't let yourself get caught - those spikes hurt!)
They clean themselves as thoroughly and as frequently as cats, too, and often appear to enjoy people-watching as much as people enjoy watching them.
Freshly-caught wild mantises are likely to flare up and display their eye-spots if startled by fast movements. They can also startle you with the speed of their movements! However, once they get used to your presence and to regular handling, they can become fairly tame. To speed the process, I regularly take mine out in safe places to walk around and explore, under my supervision. I also introduce them to food and water from a spoon fairly early, though flies were the main diet for all my mantises except Muddy, and get them used to being gently stroked on the neck and back. (The first few times you do this, the mantis is likely to startle badly, possibly startling you as well.)
Once tame, the mantis will be easier to transfer between cages for cleanings, and can also spend more time out of its cage, though I recommend keeping a close eye on it, and being very careful to protect it from cats, dogs, and small children, and from the possibility of being accidentally smushed by someone coming into the room without noticing the mantis. Mantises will especially enjoy the opportunity to take care of that annoying fly buzzing around your living room. ;)
I have always kept adult, or near adult, mantises as pets. However, you can also raise them from eggcases. I recommend the following sources for information about breeding, raising, and keeping mantises from eggcase to adulthood: