The Most Beautiful Insect of All
Sting sang (really ungrammatically), “If you love somebody, set them free.” I guess my son really loved his pet praying mantis, because a week or so ago, he came to me and said he had decided to set her free. I agreed it was time. Friends had found her and given her to Johnny last summer because they knew he loved bugs and would take care of her. And she was a beauty: long and strong and a pale chartreuse color that almost shone. Her triangular face with its big eyes was actually stuffed animal adorable. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:
You can see why we loved her. Having recently lost a snake to natural causes, Johnny had a habitat all ready for the praying mantis to move into. It was, for a bug, something akin to the penthouse apartment in Trump Towers. Let’s just say that the mantis had a LOT of room to move around in.
(By the way, I’m not sure if “mantis” or “mantid” is more correct when referring to the insect. If anyone out there knows, please tell me!)
The praying mantis lived happily–at least I think she was happy–she certainly seemed more content on any given day than I tend to be–in that habitat for months. Johnny sprayed her with water regularly and reminded me frequently to go to Petco for crickets to keep her well-fed, leading to the obvious maternal question, “Why do I have to drive all the way to Petco to pay for crickets when we have a million infesting our garage right now?” which in turn led to the loving teenage response of, “You want to use those crickets? YOU catch them.” Good times, good times.
It was nice to wander into Johnny’s room and see the mantis clinging to the underside of the wire habitat top and it was fun to see her pounce on the crickets and eat them (nothing cooler than watching the food chain in action when you’re at the top of it) but high school is demanding and, after a few months of caring for his pet, Johnny was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. And I was getting nervous that the mantis would die under our care–as so many of our pets have–and wanted to give it a taste of freedom before the inevitable happened. So when Johnny asked me if I thought he should set it free, I immediately said, “Yes. Let’s do it now.”
So he got the mantis into a traveling container and then we went out back. I thought he should set it free into something green and alive, so we approached the rose bushes and he opened the box.
It was bright outside and the mantis had been inside for a long time. I don’t know enough about insects to know whether that affected her willingness to leave or not, but it was really hard to get her out of that box and onto a branch. Johnny was trying but she was clinging to something–his arm maybe?–so I tried to help and reached for her and she immediately raised her two front legs–the ones with the sharp little ends to them and sank them into my hand in what was clearly attack mode.
It hurt about as much as you’d expect a relatively harmless bug’s attack to hurt: I felt it, it stung for a moment, and then it was fine. But my attempt to move her along had failed, so Johnny tried again and she attacked him. It was sort of worse seeing her do it to him and I kept saying, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” Johnny said, “It doesn’t hurt, Mom,” which I already knew was true but she had looked like she was TRYING to hurt him and, as a mother, I don’t like to see anything attacking or hurting one of my kids.
At some point we finally got her onto the bush and I ran to get the camera because she looked so regal sitting there and I wanted to remember her. By the time I got back with the camera, Johnny was calling out to me again: somehow the mantis had jumped BACK ONTO HIM and was now clinging vertically to his tee-shirt, right on his stomach. He took the camera and got the shot I inserted above: she’s literally looking up at him from his own belly. You don’t normally see many bugs eye-to-eye like that.
Of course, now we had to get her off him again, and once we resumed our attempts to free her, she attacked Johnny a couple more times before he was able to get her safely ensconced in the bushes and say a final goodbye We hope she’s happily hunting crickets and various pests out there and hasn’t herself been eaten by a larger predator.
It’s hard not to anthropomorphize insects even though they are at least as different from us as, say, the very rich, and I found myself wondering if the bug, by jumping back on Johnny, was doing that second part of the famous saying where if you set something free and it comes back to you, it was meant to be with you.
But mostly I think about how she was a beauty and how, like so many beauties, she sometimes foolishly attacked the thing that loved her most and that only wanted what was best for her.