Invasion of the Marzipan Snatchers

The perils of messing with nature, photographic procrastination, and unintended outcomes

Text and photos by LensAfield

It was mid-April. The weather was still quite cool here in central New Jersey, but the early morning light stimulated me to break out of my winter doldrums, get up early, and do some shooting. So off I headed to the closest county park, a place I have lapped hundreds of times, to see what might be of interest for a project I had in mind.

I entered the park and went straight for some shrubs that caught my eye. They were only about four feet high, displaying the earliest stage of new spring growth. It would be easy to see anything from last year that might be preserved and lodged within the near-bare branches. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to spot a couple of abandoned bird’s nests, one with an unhatched broken egg. And so, the new outdoor shooting season began.

Then I saw them. Two of them. Two egg cases. Of what, I didn’t know. I assumed they were inviable casualties from last year. I noticed the quality of their exterior textures and decided I would like to use them in an extended tabletop photo study. I cut off the spindly branches they were attached to and put them in my camera backpack to take home. Once there, I placed the stems in a glass with some water and put it on the dining room table where they could also catch some sunlight to keep the newly budding foliage alive. I could present my study as if in its natural setting while having total control over shooting angles and perspectives.

I would shoot my little photo study when I could devote sufficient time to do the little project justice. But now was not that time. I need to return to the park to take advantage of the consistent, mostly cloudy, filtered early morning light that occurred over the next several days.

Also keeping me busy was the need to import those daily photos into my editing app, catalog, cull, and do some preliminary editing as preparation for making selections for my pending project. I took over 600 photos, so this arduous process kept me busy for the next week. There was simply no time to to deal with the egg cases.

On the early morning of the 23rd, I returned to the park for one last day to shoot some location reference shots. When I returned home, I happened to walk into the dining room and noticed some things running around on the dining room table. On closer inspection, I could see they were baby praying mantises.

I saw one reach the end of the table and fall off onto one of the chairs. When I looked for it on the chair, I saw a few more on the seat cushion and others falling to the carpet. I got on my hands and knees and saw what looked like a small army heading toward some potted seedlings on the floor. Some were up on the wall! I captured them and put them in a small jar as fast as possible. There had to be more than 50 of them!

I took a look at the egg cases (proper name: ootheca) and saw that one of them now appeared to be more ragged than before, with some shredding of its surface and what might have been a rupture at the lighter colored flat base. I guess it wasn’t inviable after all!

I quickly ran to the basement to get an empty gallon-sized pickle jar I had stored. Returning to the dining room, I placed the branches with the egg cases in the jar, transferred all the babies I had captured from the smaller jar, and closed it. Whew!

They were a bit over a half-inch long with big bulging eyes and those formidable front legs (they hatched inside the ootheca sometime earlier but will not emerge from it until conditions are right). I was so panicked and busy collecting them that I never thought to take any still shots or video to document this episode with my Z50 or iPhone, both of which just happened to be only three feet away!

It was obvious the next morning that the second egg case had released its captives as the population in the jar had at least doubled, and the second ootheca now showed the same surface changes and irregularities as the other. There was an obvious size difference between the two sets of nymphs, making it easy to tell them apart.

I thought I would take some photos once I was home from work that evening, then again the morning before releasing them. But later that afternoon, the weather service issued frost warnings for the next two days. Releasing them into those conditions would be certain death, so I needed to keep them captive and alive for at least two more days.

Mantises only need to eat about every three to four days. They had emerged at least three days earlier, so I would be holding them for at least five days, maybe six. But what do I feed them while I have them captive?

They are predators. They can also be cannibalistic, something I wanted to avoid so feeding them became a priority. Finding small prey they could capture and consume would not only feed them but make for some terrific action photos. So I went outside to look for appropriately sized critters to make available for them to capture and eat. What I found were some termites and their mobile larvae. Ready to take pictures or video, I scooped up a few spoonfuls of larvae-rich dirt, dumped them into the jar with the mantises, and watched to see what they would do.

They did nothing. They completely ignored the larvae. Now what?

I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I just waited out the weather. Three days later, after the immediate temperature threat had passed, I released all the mantises into the wild with no casualties or apparent ill effects (and no cannibalism!).

I opened the jar and put it on the back stoop so they could exit and move into a bush. They were reluctant to leave but eventually did so.

I put the two branches with the egg cases on the ground so any mantises still in the cases they would exit naturally and move on.

That should be the end of this story.

A basket in the middle of the dining room table acts as a convenient place to put various do-dads.

A week after the events above, while searching for something in the basket, moving things around as I did, something looked unusual. See that bar in the lower right of the basket? That’s this unopened bar of marzipan:

There is another under that one. Here’s what the end of the bottom one looked like:

Something had chewed open the wrapper and munched on the marzipan, evidenced by the thin deep furrows eaten out of the block. There were no signs of mice droppings anywhere (an occasional winter problem). What could have done this?

After doing a little research, I discovered that the mantises could eat sugary things.

Now, how the nymphs from the first emergence (when the cases were open in a glass) had sustained themselves seemed clear. This feeding also explains why they were noticeably larger than those from the second case that emerged after being placed into the closed pickle jar and remained contained until I released them.

Lessons learned:

  1. I had seen this type of egg case before but never knew what it was. Now I do.
  2. I know the eggs winter over, and the nymphs release when conditions are right in the spring.
  3. By taking the branches and bringing them into the house, I placed them in a warm, stable environment that triggered their premature release from the cases. I had inadvertently created a scenario where I had to keep them alive until I could properly release them.
  4. Standard feeding logic failed. Luckily, an unintended food source was available. Mantis nymphs will eat honey—or marzipan—and probably any other candies they can detect that might be available. Good to know should I ever do this again.
  5. Finally, when I tell myself I am going shoot a potential live-subject project indoors, don’t blithely say, “I’ll get to it.” Get it done before I find out that what I thought was inviable is, in fact, very viable and the indoor environment triggers unexpected results and consequences!

Quasi-related entertaining sidebar: Scrub to 7:20 of this video to hear about the role praying mantises had in creating the classic MGMT song Time to Pretend. They then play live at the Fab-Four-fabled Abbey Road studios (compare with the “official” original studio release/video here).

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LensAfield

Central NJ lensman specialist in closeup nature: flowers, small animals, insects, arachnids, bees in-flight a specialty. Intro video https://vimeo.com/541710168