Eighty years after praying mantises were introduced to the Okanagan Valley as a form of biological pest control, the spooky-looking insects are still hanging on – with all six legs.
Sightings of the creature are uncommon enough though that they tend to show up in news reports when people like Brock Potter are moved to share their experiences with others.
Potter got up close and personal with a praying mantis on July 22 while hiking on Campbell Mountain in Penticton.
“We were walking along and these grasshoppers were peeling off ahead of us — by the hundreds — and then I felt something land on my hand,” recalled Potter.
Instead of flinching, Potter calmly handed his smartphone to his partner so she could take photos.
The insect stayed put for about 90 seconds, before Potter moved his hand to some grass, into which the bug jumped and quickly disappeared thanks to its camouflage.
After he got home, Potter measured the part of his hand where the insect landed and estimated the creature was seven centimetres in length.
It was the first time the retired chiropractor, who grew up in the Okanagan but spent most of his adult life away from the region, ever saw a praying mantis — so named because its front legs are bent as if in prayer— up close.
Potter credits the four years he spent as a young man working as a biologist for Ducks Unlimited with giving him an appreciation for under-appreciated species.
“I realized all the little creepy-crawlies that lived in the water fed the ducks and everything else,” said Potter.
“If I had been 18 and that (praying mantis) landed on me, I don’t know, I might have shaken it off because I thought it might bite me.”
Dr. Rob Cannings, who spent 33 years as curator of entomology for the Royal BC Museum, said while praying mantises aren’t considered rare in the Okanagan, they are definitely good at hiding in plain sight.
“You could call it ‘uncommon’ or ‘scarce’ or some other term that indicates that someone knowledgeable about its habitat and habits could find it maybe one out of four or five times it’s looked for in suitable habitat,” said Cannings in an email.
Cannings, whose brother, Richard, is the MP for Central Okanagan-West Kootenay, has published two papers on praying mantises in B.C.
According to his research, European praying mantises were introduced to the Okanagan in the late 1930s by a Vernon farmer trying to control grasshoppers. There were also releases in the Kamloops and Salmon Arm areas around the same time.
Cannings isn’t aware of any releases in the South Okanagan, but said it’s the South Okanagan where the praying mantises gained the firmest foothold.
And, as Potter’s experience on Campbell Mountain showed, the insects haven’t had much effect on the grasshopper population.
Praying mantises have “a slow reproductive rate and its populations just are never high enough to make a dent in any prey species’ numbers,” said Cannings. “So, no, it was not effective against grasshoppers.”