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As we were sitting in traffic in a forest somewhere north of Port Elizabeth, the conversation turned to the dragonfly that was making several vain attempts to land on the black Mustang in front of us. It was 89 degrees, so we wondered if the insect found the metal trunk lid too hot to handle. What with all the trees on both sides of the road, there wasn’t much else to inspire us, so I asked Pat if she had called dragonflies by their alias, darning needles, when she was a kid.

healthyhuman.net

It turned out she had used that term, and that , like me, she had been told by adults supposedly looking after her welfare that a dragonfly left to its own devices would sew her mouth shut. I heard that story from my mother, and I believed it. Of course, I know better now – intellectually, that is – but I still shy away from dragonflies.

I have since learned that dragonflies are good friends of ours in that they eat mosquitoes and flies. I don’t know why adults who perpetuated the lip-sewing myth singled out the dragonfly for opprobrium, especially since those same adults told us kids that we could do hard time for molesting a praying mantis — and precisely because the mantis is a valuable predator.

Whatever the reason for this vicious canard against the dragonfly, it has a long history, as explained in this excerpt from scienceessayist.com:

In their book A Dazzle of Dragonflies, Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell explain that the dragonfly-epithet “devil’s darning needle” has its origins in Europe of the Middle Ages. The long and slender shape of the insect’s body, combined with the superstitious belief that it, like the fly, was in league with the darkest of forces, produced a myth durable enough to make the journey with the colonists to the United States. Today in Iowa, the authors write, “devil’s darning needles sew together the fingers or toes of a person who falls asleep…in Kansas, they may sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children…and profane men.”

Dragonflies, of course, do no such thing. In fact, creatures belonging to the order Odonata (Latin for “toothed,” a reference to the chewing mandibles dragonflies share with most other insects) and the infraorder Anisoptera (Latin for “unequal wings,” because dragonflies have broader hindwings than forewings) have no sting, let alone needlepoint. They are perfectly harmless to humans, if not to their prey: smaller insects, including ants, bees, and the mosquitoes . . . .

glf-mantis-27bSo there was a praying mantis on the screen outside our kitchen window this afternoon. When Pat first spotted it, the mantis appeared to be about to grab a lady bug, and we tapped on the window and expressed our disapproval. The mantis desisted and the lady bug went on its way.

I was glad, because I like both lady bugs and praying mantises. Well, I did anyway. Many people cringe at the site of a mantis, but I’ve always thought of the mantis as kind of regal, introspective — sort of a symbol of peace.

I got to wondering why it is that one sees only one praying mantis at a time. When was the last time you saw two of them together? I always tell my students that when a question like that arises in their minds, they shouldn’t let the moment pass without searching out the answer and adding to their store of knowledge.

praymantisI took my own advice and looked around the Web for the answer. I didn’t find an answer to my original question, but I learned a lot of other things, disgusting things, about these creatures. I guess I knew they were carnivores, because they get credit for keeping the insect population under control. I didn’t know that they can get as big as six inches long — not in the United States, fortunately, and that they will attack and eat almost anything. I found a video of a mantis devouring a mouse.

praying mantis 2And then … then I came to the part about cannibalism — including sexual cannibalism. Trust me, you don’t want to know.

Before I had the wisdom to stop reading, I found out that the mantis is thought to have evolved from the roach family, which now strikes me as fitting.

For a couple of generations, kids have been told by presumably well-meaning adults that it is a crime to kill a praying mantis. I found several sites, including Snopes, that claimed that there is no such state or federal law. I also found sites that claimed that the mantis is protected in Connecticut, where it is the state insect, but the Praying Mantis Page on the state’s official Web site doesn’t mention that.

You can read Connecticut’s rationale at this link:

http://www.ct.gov/ctportal/cwp/view.asp?A=885&Q=246504