Praying mantis are carnivorous predators.
In the wild praying mantis will eat almost anything they can safely capture. Being diurnal predators (active by day) that primarily use their powerful sense of vision to capture prey their most common foodstuffs are invertebrates of varying types.
Small vertebrates may also be eaten when the opportunity arises, including small lizards and amphibians. There are even videos recording praying mantis successfully catching and eating hummingbirds at a feeder or goldfish from a bowl.
That said, praying mantis are surprisingly smart about what they can and cannot eat. Praying mantis soon learn what size of prey they can subdue, and also learn to identify those invertebrates – such as some beetles – that are either unpalatable or toxic.
Praying Mantis Food in Captivity
As pets, it is most common to feed praying mantis on a range of feeder insects freely available from breeders. Generally speaking the size of the prey item should correspond to the body length of the praying mantis; smaller mantids eat comparatively smaller insect prey.
Praying Mantis Food for Hatchlings
Baby praying mantis are tiny when they hatch; often only a centimetre or so in overall length. They therefore require tiny insect prey to start them off, with bigger insects being accepted as they begin to grow.
For hatchling praying mantis two foods are likely to be the most effective:
So-called because of their diminutive size, pinhead crickets are freshly-hatched brown or black crickets that have recently emerged from their egg. Measuring just a millimetre or two in length, they are an ideal size for praying mantis.
There are, however, a number of weaknesses to pinhead crickets as food for baby mantis. The first of these is that pinhead crickets have a nasty habit of becoming dehydrated and dying early.
Buy a tub of pinhead crickets from a pet store, and most of them will have died within days. This can be remedied by the provision of moisture-rich food such as slices of carrot, potato or apple, but adds to the effort of keeping the livefood going long enough to get your money’s worth.
The second, and arguably larger issue, is that pinhead crickets tend to spend the majority of their time on the floor of the cage, while the young praying mantis will spend most of their time up high, away from the floor.
For this reason, your baby praying mantis may not notice the tiny crickets dashing around the floor of their cage. Unless you’re lucky, your mantis will also have to pluck up the courage to come and pick these crickets off the floor of the cage one-by one.
Fruit flies are a similar size to pinhead crickets, but tend to have rather longer lives. It is simplicity itself to buy a “fruitfly culture” from most good reptile shops. Within a week or so of bringing it home, you should find that dozens – even hundreds – of fruit flies should start to hatch within the culture. These can then be fed to your baby mantis.
Unlike crickets, fruit flies are far more likely to climb or fly up to the top of the cage – putting them pleasantly within striking distance of your baby mantis. When combined with the ease of breeding fruit flies, this makes them my personal preference for the basis on my praying mantids’ diets.
Indeed, while I offer pinhead crickets occasionally to add variety, I tend to purchase these tubs when my fruit fly cultures are running dry – and I know I may have to wait some weeks before the next batch of flies become available.
How to Handle Tiny Insects
It is worth mentioning at this juncture that handling tiny insects as food for your praying mantis is far from easy. How do you control a buzzing swarm of fruit flies, ensuring that they make it into your praying mantis cage rather than simply flitting off around your home? Here there are three possible options…
Refrigeration – The first option is to gently chill the feeder insects in your refrigerator. Pop the tub into the fridge for 10 minutes or so and you’ll find that the livefood becomes much slower and easier to handle. Of course, as they warm back up so their speed of movement will increase so this is only a temporary situation. It is not ideal if you have plenty of mantis to feed, or if your family dislike the idea of sticking crickets in the fridge.
A Pooter – A pooter is a simple device consisting of two plastic tubes, with a clear plastic vessel between them. A filter is placed over one of the tubes. To use the pooter, put one tube over the top of the hapless feeder insect you’d like to catch, then suck hard on the other. The insects will find themselves vacuumed up into the collection pot, safely protecting your mouth from the insects by the filter.
From here, it is quite simple to open the collection pot and tip the insects into your praying mantis cages.
I have found that pooters can work with fruit flies, but tend to be particularly effective for pinhead crickets. In a single “suck” you can dump dozens of crickets into the collecting pot, then tip a handful into each of your praying mantis cages.
Larger Rearing Cages & Stealth – Possibly the easiest method of all, and the one I use to rear whole egg cases (ootheca), is to keep the baby praying mantis together until they reach a more manageable size.
In truth, such a method will always result in the loss of some mantids, as the youngsters are just as keen to eat one another as they are the fruit flies or crickets lovingly provided for them.
As a result, I would not recommend this method for keepers buying a small number of hatchling mantids. Instead is a technique for keepers that have successfully bred their mantis, and are trying to rear the contents of a whole ootheca.
In this manner, I fill a large cage with hundreds of tiny twigs, giving a three-dimensional climbing frame, allowing the baby mantids to avoid each other as much as is possible. Every so often, I take a fruit fly culture and bang it firmly on a table to knock the flies to the bottom. Before the flies have a chance to respond I then unscrew the lid, open up the baby mantis cage and shake the fruit fly culture over the top.
Dozens – even hundreds – of flies will tumble into the cage before the lid is replaced. In this way, my baby mantids have an almost non-stop supply of flies which simply needs to be topped up from time to time.
Of course, as time goes on, so will the number of mantis you lose, so I try to only use this method until the babies reach a more manageable size of 2-3cm before splitting them into individual cages.
Praying Mantis Food for Juveniles and Adult Mantis
As praying mantis grow, so they become ever-easier to feed. The reason is simple; not only are larger praying mantis more resilient and easier to keep themselves, but larger insect prey is also much easier to handle. As your praying mantis grows you’ll find it simpler to grab a cricket or two than it was to fuss about with a cloud of rapidly-moving fruit flies!
Here are some of the more common feeder insects suitable for praying mantis, though once again you should take care to select insects of a suitable size for your mantis.
Crickets come in a range of different types, including brown, black and silent crickets. Within these types, it is normal possible to buy crickets of varying sizes – from youngsters right up to the huge adults of black crickets. The nice thing about feeding crickets, therefore, is that irrespective of what size your mantis is, there’s likely to be a corresponding size of cricket ready to become dinner!
While crickets are possibly the most popular food item for larger mantis, as stated earlier, they do have a nasty habit of staying on the ground rather than obligingly climbing up towards your waiting mantis.
Personally speaking, I also find the chirp of the adult male crickets thoroughly irritating too; especially on those occasions when an escapee successfully wedges itself behind the fridge or a heavy piece of furniture on a hot summer night. The chirping soon sends me round the bend! For this reason, I personally am less likely to feed crickets to my mantis than other prey types listed below.
One of my favorite feeder insects for my mantis are locusts. These are available in a wide range of sizes once again, but do not produce the noise that crickets can. Of course, locusts can also grow considerably larger than crickets, helping to make a really “meaty” meal for larger species of praying mantis.
Just as importantly, I have found that locusts are far more likely to climb up the sides of the praying mantis cage, or to rest in the twigs that I provide each of my mantis as a perch. They therefore come into far more regular contact with the mantis, and are more easily picked off.
Lastly, in my experience locusts are much easier to handle. While crickets often jump and move very quickly, locusts are on the whole much slower and jump less regularly. If you’re going to be picking up feeder insects by hand (as I do then) then locusts tend to be much easier to work with.
Waxworms are the caterpillars of wax moths; they’re fat and juicy and loved by praying mantis. Just as good, when the caterpillars themselves pupate they turn into fluttery moths; perfect for your praying mantis to catch from way up on their perch.
Mealworms aren’t worms at all – they’re the larval stage of the Tenebrio beetle. Studies suggest that mealworms aren’t as rich in nutrients as many other types of feeder insect. They are, however, very simple to look after and to handle.
They can therefore make a handy change from crickets or locusts on occasion. Indeed, it is quite simple to breed these insects at home, so for anyone worried about running out of insect prey, they are an easy “plan b” to keep on hand at all times to fill in any gaps in your supply of locusts or crickets.
For mid-sized praying mantis blowflies are one of my favorite prey items. Be sure to buy the maggots (or “gentles”) from a pet supplier – not from a fishing shop where they may contain chemicals.
The maggots can be left to pupate in a small pot lined with sawdust, then the pupae can be sprinkled into your praying mantis cages. As the flies hatch they’ll find themselves restricted to the cage, making a perfect flying food for your younger mantids.
These flies are arguably the easiest livefood of all to deal with, as the pupae are inert, so there is no chance of them escaping – by the time the adult flies actually hatch out they’ll be confined to the mantis cage, ready to become a juicy snack!
Feeding Praying Mantis
It is next to impossible to overfeed a praying mantis; they’ll eat as much as they need, but won’t get “overweight”. If anything, feeding your praying mantis plenty of food will enable them to grow that much faster, reaching maturity in less time than a similar mantis on a stricter diet.
Generally speaking I like to try and keep livefood in the cages of my baby mantis at all time, assuming that the mantis can effectively escape from the prey item, by resting on a twig or hanging from the roof of the cage.
Once my mantis are big enough to be housed individually I maintain careful feeding charts, in order to monitor how often the mantis are eating and when moults are likely arising. Uneaten food is removed the following day, before trying again the day after. Over time you’ll develop your own routine, though I find that most praying mantis will eat almost daily.
The only warning sign to look out for is a mantis that suddenly goes off it’s food after having eaten heartily for some weeks. This is especially so if the mantis looks “fat” to the eye. Such a praying mantis is likely coming up to change it’s skin.
When a praying mantis changes its skin, it suspends itself from a twig, splits open the old skin, and slides out to inflate its new coat of armour. Hanging from just two legs, while your skin is soft and pliable is fraught with danger, and mantids have been known to fall or be knocked down by larger prey items still in the cage.
As a result, when I find a mantis that goes off it’s food I like to make a note, then withhold food until a few days after their impending moult is successfully completed. In this way I avoid any annoyance to my mantis, and ensure that they are able to moult successfully.
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