The term “African mantis” tends to refer to a closely-related group of praying mantis.
All from the genus Sphodromantis, you may find species for sale including Sphodromantis centralis, Sphodromantis lineola and Sphodromantis viridis.
The care of each of these species is near-identical in my experience, and as many specimens are misidentified by sellers it makes to group them all together.
The African mantis – in this case Sphodromantis centralis – was the very first praying mantis I kept.
It couldn’t have been a better introduction, as these mantids achieve a reasonable size (roughly 8cm) which makes them comfortable to hold. They’re also sturdy praying mantis, accepting of a range of conditions in captivity.
They’re surprisingly easy to breed, though you may get through a few males before an egg case (ootheca) is produced.
This ease of breeding then naturally makes them one of the more common species of praying mantis to be found in the pet trade, and also one of the more reasonably priced.
For anyone looking for a good “starter” mantis as a beginner, you could therefore do a lot worse than Sphodromantis.
African Mantis Caging
First things first; while hatchlings may initially put up with one another, within weeks of hatching the youngsters will start to devour one another.
This means that African mantids should always be kept alone to avoid cannibalism. If you opt to buy more than one, therefore, you’ll need a separate cage for each.
As praying mantids of all types tend to be quite short-lived (a matter of months as an adult) I generally believe it makes sense to purchase a number of mantids at the same time. This therefore maximizes your chances of ending up with a breeding pair, which then allows you to culture the species in the long term.
As praying mantis are still quite unusual pets, and are not as commonly bred as – for example – tarantulas, it makes sense to buy a number of specimens when they are available. Finding additional specimens some weeks or months later may not be a simple thing to achieve.
The specific caging used for Sphodromantis will depend rather on the size of the mantis you purchase. Tiny hatchlings are best kept in small clear plastic or glass containers; anything from deli cups to pill containers may be used successfully over the short term.
As your mantis grows, so too should their housing. A range of household containers can be used to house mid-sized mantids, such as ice cream tubs or old sweet jars.
Larger mantids tend to be easiest to maintain in dedicated cages. They also look far more attractive, which is of course a big reason for keeping mantids in the first place. It always seem s bit pointless when someone keeps their praying mantis in a sub-standard cage, where it cannot be properly seen and enjoyed.
There are two popular commercially-available cages suitable for praying mantis. The first of these is the faunarium – in essence a plastic “fish tank” with a solid mesh lid. The design of the lid makes for excellent ventilation and prevents the build-up of mould or fungi that can plague constantly-wet tanks.
The alternative – and my personal favorite – are Exo Terra glass terrariums. Coming in a range of different sizes these are some of the best-looking exotic pet cages available to my mind.
With a front-opening door for easy access and a mesh lid for ventilation there’s little more attractive than an adult female Sphodromantis displayed in an Exo Terra. You can even buy separate hoods for these cages, which can be used to light the tank and really show your specimens off to their best.
Whatever cage you choose there are a number of factors that should be taken into account.
In terms of dimensions, it is easiest to think in terms of how long your mantis is. Their cage should be at least three times this height, and twice this length in width and depth. Remember that African mantis grow rapidly, so don’t judge the dimensions too carefully or you’ll be finding a new cage every few weeks.
Better to go a little large than a little small so they can grow into it. Exo Terra Nanos, for example, can be ideal for mantids anywhere between a few centimetres long to almost adult. While these cages might prove a little more expensive than a re-used sweet jar, if you plan ahead they can therefore work out quite cost-effectively.
The other consideration should be suitable ventilation.
Keeping mantids in cages where the air remains stale and stagnant rarely ends well. This is another benefit of faunariums and Exo Terras, but does mean some modifications may be necessary for other cages.
Holes can be added with an electric drill or a soldering iron. Alternatively a section can be removed, and replaced with firmly-attached gauze.
Note that praying mantis are, by their very nature, excellent climbers. Adults can also fly. Lastly, therefore, you’ll want to carefully check the container for any holes or gaps through which you mantis might escape. Follow these general rules and your mantis should live out a long and healthy life.
There are really only two aspects you need worry about when it comes to furnishing your praying mantis cage ready for occupation.
The first of these are twigs or branches that your mantis can rest in. I have also found artificial vines work quite well and can be bent to fit most mid-sized cages. The purpose of these twigs is two-fold.
Firstly, they serve as a perch for your mantis to hunt from, while secondly they allow your mantis to moult successfully. At least one part of the twig should touch the ground – so your mantis can come down to hunt – while the other end should be at least twice as high as your mantis is long.
The other aspect of tank decor that your Sphodromantis will require is some form of substrate.
This helps to moderate the humidity in the cage, adds to the overall look of the cage and can make cleaning easier. A range of alternatives may be used; for youngsters a small piece of kitchen towel can suffice, but as mantids grow older I like to use either coconut fibre (my favorite) or a mixture of vermiculite and potting compost. A thin layer is all that is required.
Heating & Temperature
African mantids like a temperature of around 25’C at the hot end of their cage, but they should also always have a cooler area they can escape to.
This allows them to moderate their body temperature, seeking out the area of the cage that suits them.
The easiest way to provide this necessary warmth is with a heat mat.
These can be bought quite cheaply online or from most reptile shops, though it’s important to set them up correctly.
A heat mat should either be placed under your praying mantis cage, or either attached to the side. If you opt to put the cage ontop of the heater then no more than half the floor area should be heated, in order to ensure a cooler area is present.
Heating hatchling praying mantis can of course be rather more complex; how do you heat their tiny tubs without the risk of them overheating?
Here I have found that the easiest option is to place the smaller tubs into a larger cage. A wooden vivarium, old fishtank or even popping smaller containers into the Exo Terra you’ve bought for when it gets bigger can work well.
You then heat this cage by placing the heatmat on the back wall of the cage, which gently heats all the air in the cage and keeps your mantis fit and healthy.
I rotate where the tiny hatchling containers are in this cage each week, in order to ensure that each mantis gets their fair share of the warmest part of the cage.
Whatever option you choose, it can be a wise idea to invest in a reptile thermometer so safely measure the temperature in the hottest part of the cage, ensuring that it is appropriate at all times.
Water & Humidity
Praying mantis need to drink from time to time. In nature they would do this most commonly by licking water droplets of dew or rain off the plants in which they hide.
This is simple enough to replicate in captivity, by gently misting the cage every few days with a houseplant spray gun.
You will often see your African mantis delicately enjoying a drink thereafter. Ensuring that suitable ventilation is present, the cage can be left to dry out a little between spraying, to prevent the growth of mould.
Note that all praying mantids need a humid environment to mould successfully. If and when your mantis goes off it’s food, it is very likely that the next mould is approaching. Under these circumstances it can be wise to increase your spraying to keep the cage nice and moist until the moulting process is complete.
African mantids tend to have healthy appetites and will eat almost anything they can catch. This includes crickets and locusts in captivity. Assuming your Sphodromantis can easily get down to the floor of the cage (as they should) they may also take prey that doesn’t climb; such as mealworms or waxworms.
Smaller specimens will of course eat smaller prey. For the youngest of all my preference is for fruit flies (Drosophila), moving up to small crickets or hatchling locusts as they grow.
For the ultimate in fun, try purchasing some unbleached maggots. Pop the maggots into a tub with some sawdust in it and they’ll turn into black pupae within a few days. A few weeks after this the pupae will hatch into adult flies – perfect food for your mantis, and highly entertaining to watch.
Pro tip: put a few of the pupae into your mantids cage, then pop the rest in the fridge. Do this every few days. After a while the first pupae will hatch out in the cage, meaning you don’t need to try and handle the flies themselves.
The other pupae which have been kept in the fridge will pupate a little later, so over time you’ll have all manner of flies hatching out ready for your mantis to enjoy!
Note that studies have shown how providing more food results in faster growth. This can be handy to remember for two reasons. Firstly, if you want your Sphodromantis to grow as quickly as possible then feed them liberally.
Providing live prey every day or two can really speed up the time to maturity. On the other hand, if you have a few specimens of similar sizes it can make sense to feed more to the females.
In this way they mature faster than they otherwise might. If you time it right, both sexes will then mature around the same time, which makes pairing them up much easier.
Handling African Mantids
If you’re looking for a praying mantis that you can handle then Sphodromantis is an excellent choice.
While the adults have wings, only the male flies strongly. Very rarely will an adult female make a break for freedom. Of course, as only the adult have wings, the jenvules of both sexes can be handled without worry.
It is best to gently coax the mantis onto a flat hand and then lift it out of the cage. There they will sit happily, or will wonder from one hand to the other.
Handling African mantids can be a great experience, and allows you to really look at your mantis at close quarters. Watch that head turning around as he or she tries to figure out what’s going on and who you are.
Just don’t tease your mantis, unless you want to risk them trying to grab your finger with their sharp little forelegs.