Keeping preying mantises is a worthwhile endeavor that can be very easy given a few simple conditions are met. The first step you must take when keeping mantises is setting up an enclosure. Mantis enclosures can be quite simple and don’t have to cost a lot, nor do they need to be very large as most mantis species can only be kept alone. Mantises have some specific needs when it comes to their living quarters, however, that must be met to avoid health problems.
Praying Mantis Habitat Size & Location
In this section we’ll discuss the important of a proper sized praying mantis habitat along with placing your habitat in the right location.
Mantises should generally be kept in a room with bright indirect light, preferably natural light, to expose them to natural day-night cycles. Keep mantises out of direct sunlight, drafts, extreme temperature fluctuations, and complete darkness, however. Mantises generally prefer quieter surroundings so you should avoid placing the enclosure in heavily-trafficked areas.
Mantises need a great deal of vertical space to remain happy and healthy. Molting is a dangerous time in the life of a mantis and as such you need to provide them with enough space to molt successfully. Mantises hang upside down to molt and will need a vertical space at least 3 times the length of their body, positioned below something they can hang from. This means that larger mantises require much larger enclosures, with particular regard to the height. The length of the cage is less vital for mantis survival, and an enclosure length of at least twice the length of the mantis should suffice. When keeping communal species of mantis you should increase the size of the enclosure as well to prevent cannibalism and stress.
There are a wide variety of enclosures that can house mantises:
- Jars: many species of mantis can be kept singly in larger glass or plastic jars. Jars are not ideal, however, as they tend to be made out of smooth material, limit climbing, and are poorly ventilated. If you are using a jar to house a mantis be very careful to make sure there is enough surface area for them to climb on. Mantises need a vertical space in which to molt that is at least 3 times the length of the mantis, often difficult to obtain in the confines of a jar. You can use a mesh lid and keep a branch propped up against the top of the jar, allowing the mantis to climb to the top of the jar and hang upside down from the mesh.
- Glass tanks: glass aquariums are a common choice available in most pet stores but are often not the ideal enclosure for mantises. The first reason is that they have smooth glass or acrylic walls, which prevent many species of mantises from climbing (only certain species of mantis can climb smooth surfaces). Mantises kept in glass terrariums should be given branches and ample space to climb. To allow for proper molting use a mesh lid, which will give the mantis something to hold onto while it hangs upside-down to molt. The second drawback to glass or acrylic aquariums is that they are poorly ventilated which can cause mold. If you use a glass aquarium you must use a mesh or screen lid to provide proper ventilation.
- Netcages: all species of mantis can be successfully kept in a netcage. Netcages are generally made of fiberglass, acrylic, or nylon mesh stretched over a metal frame, with one or more doors that open via zipper or velcro. Netcages allow for excellent ventilation and are easy to mist, a big plus given that mantises need daily misting. They are especially well-suited to the species of mantis that cannot climb smooth surfaces as they provide 4 walls of climbing space. Netcages can be pricy, however, and hard to find.
- Mesh and hardware cloth cages: perhaps some of the best cages are those that are custom-built for mantises. You can create your own mantis enclosure with a non-toxic wood (do not use cedar, walnut, redwood, locust, or any treated wood) and fine hardware cloth or fiberglass window screen. Creating your own enclosure allows for greater customization and can be much cheaper than a ready-made enclosure, provided you have the necessary skills to assemble it.
Choosing a Substrate
The bottom of every mantis enclosure should be lined with a substrate. This is important for species that require low humidity, as you can maintain a dry substrate that will remove moisture from the air and lower humidity. It is also extremely important for species that thrive in very high humidity, as you can keep the substrate moist so that it releases moisture into the air. A good substrate should be absorbent, easy to clean, and easy to maintain.
- Paper towels: paper towels are perhaps the most simple option when looking for a mantis substrate. They are simple to use and quite absorbent, but are not particularly attractive and become dirty quickly. This means they must be replaced often, which means that in the long run they are likely not the most cost-effective substrate.
- Coconut coir: coir is a fine, fluffy material made from the crushed husks of coconuts. It is generally quite clean, often sterile. It is usually pesticide-free, is very absorbent, regulates humidity, and does not mold easily. This makes coir one of the best substrates for mantises as well as other kinds of invertebrates.
- Soil: soil can be an excellent substrate as long as you care cautious of a few common pitfalls. Soil can serve as a host for a wide variety of pathogens that can harm your mantis and can also harbor mites that can parasitize your mantises. The best way to avoid this is to sterilize any soil you want to use in your mantis enclosure. You can do this by placing the soil in a glass or ceramic dish and putting it in the microwave or oven. If you are using the microwave, put the soil in the microwave for 5 minutes on high. If you are using the oven set the temperature to at least 300 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour. This should kill most persistent pathogens and parasites. It is also very important that you use soil free of any pesticides or fertilizers, which can harm your mantis.
- Bark chips: bark chips are a good choice for mantis species that do not require high humidity, as bark chips do not hold as much water. They are cheap and easy to keep clean. Do not use cedar, redwood, or walnut chips, however, as these kinds of wood can release chemicals that can harm or kill insects.
- Sand: sand can be used as a mantis substrate. Wash it well, as it can carry a large amount of dust, and place a layer at the bottom of the cage round one inch deep for optimum moisture management. Unlike gravel, sand holds on to water fairly well. It is easy to see mantis frass and thus sand is a fairly easy substrate to keep clean.
- Gravel: gravel is not the best substrate to use for mantises, as it quickly accumulates frass and moisture. It is not absorbent, however, which means water from misting either evaporates quickly or pools at the bottom of the enclosure. If you choose to use gravel as a mantis substrate make sure you check for frass very carefully, as it can easily disappear in the gravel and foster the growth of mold and bacteria.
Mantises cannot be kept in an empty cage. It is important to provide your mantises with the ability to climb and hide as well as the ability to hang vertically. Mantises can become very stressed if they do not feel well hidden and if they are unable to hang upside-down they will have serious issues with molting and can die. The following items can help your mantis live a long and healthy life:
- Branches & Sticks: these allow mantises to climb and hang vertically and are necessary parts of your mantis enclosure. If your mantis is unable to climb smooth surfaces and you are keeping it in an enclosure with smooth walls, make sure one stick or branch is propped up into an upper corner to allow access to the lid. Make sure that all sticks and branches used in the enclosure do not have sharp or pointy parts to avoid injuries.
- Fake Foliage: most mantises like to conceal themselves in foliage. They are completely happy with artificial foliage, however, and do not need live plants. Choose artificial plants that match the color of your mantises, which will allow your mantises to feel properly camouflaged.
- Living Plants: if you have a green thumb you can grow live plants in your mantis enclosure. Choose plants that have not been treated with pesticides, which can kill your mantis.
- Rocks, Caves, and Hiding Places: you do not need to provide your mantis with any kind of cave, rock, or wood hiding spot. Mantises feel most secure in vegetation and will not use any other kind of hiding space.
Many mantis species will need an external heat source. You can use ceramic heat emitters, heat mats, or heat lamps. Ceramic heat emitters and heat lamps provide a large amount of heat, important for tropical species of mantis. Heat mats provide smaller amounts of heat over a large area. When heating your mantis enclosure you should only heat part of the enclosure, creating a temperature gradient across the enclosure to allow mantises to find their ideal temperature. It is also important to prevent mantises from directly contacting heat lamps, which can cause burns.
Thermometers and Hygrometers
Some species of mantis are a lot more hardy than others. It is a good idea to closely monitor the humidity and temperature when keeping the more sensitive species of mantises, particularly those that come from tropical regions of the world. Humidity can be measured with a hygrometer. To keep track of the temperature you should use a thermometer. The most common thermometers in the hobby are thin strips that stick onto the enclosure, but if you are using a netcage a digital thermometer will be far more accurate. Many digital thermometers also track humidity, saving you the cost of a separate hygrometer.
Mantises require regular misting to maintain humidity and to allow them to drink enough water. If you are keeping a species of mantis that requires a high level of humidity you can place a shallow water dish at the bottom of the enclosure. To prevent drowning you should fill the container with small rocks or gravel. This will help keep the humidity high while posing no risk to your mantises. Mantises generally will not drink from water dishes, however, so a water dish is not a substitute for daily misting.
Other Water Features
Mantises and water generally do not mix. Avoid keeping any water in the enclosure that is high enough to reach the lowest point on the mantises abdomen. In communal species you should be especially careful, especially if different sizes of mantises will be kept together, that any water in the enclosure is not too deep for the L1 nymphs which drown very easily. This will prevent drowning, as mantises cannot swim and do not like to be wet.
Setting Up the Praying Mantis Habitat
To set up your mantis enclosure you will need to first make sure the enclosure, substrate, and any decorations are well-cleaned and free from pathogens and mold. Fill the enclosure with a layer of substrate about one inch in depth and add a water dish, if you will be using one. Make sure all decorations are securely fastened to the enclosure to avoid slipping and falling, which can seriously injure your mantises. You can secure any loose decor with clips or aquarium-grade silicone caulking. Once you have set up the enclosure, give it a light misting with water and introduce your mantis.
Introducing Your Mantises
Introduce your mantises to their new home slowly and gently. Caution is needed because most injuries and falls happen during handling. Moving is stressful and stressed mantises are more likely to flee, increasing risk further. For the safest introduction you should place the holding container you have your mantises kept in directly inside the cage. Open it and allow the mantis time to crawl out, then remove the container.
After you have introduced your mantis into the enclosure, leave it undisturbed for 24 hours aside from a daily misting. Mantises do not need to eat every day and you should not feed for the first day the mantis is in the new enclosure to prevent undue stress.