Mantodea, Univoltinism and Accepting the Essential Ephemerality of Life

Here in the Piedmont we’ve begun the shift into autumnal weather. Men have started wearing long pants again. Open-toed shoes are increasingly unseen. And everything is dying.

Of course, that’s not precisely true. A lot of things are still alive. I’m still alive. Most other people. My cat. My neighbor’s cats. Birds. Squirrels. Trees. Microbiomes are flourishing everywhere, from the bathroom handle down the hall to my own churning gut.

But as with that sweet sweet calf meat, seeing an insect has very quickly become very rare. Most of them are still around in some capacity, but choose to wait out the winter months in diapause, inactive until spring’s thaw.

Some, though, don’t. They just die. Like mantises.

Mantises – sometimes called mantids, sometimes generalized as “praying mantises” although to The Studied Entomologist that’s a common name belonging to a single species, that old stand-by Mantis religiosa – show their ancestral closeness to cockroaches through numerous avenues but maybe most broadly notably through the retention of egg case (ootheca) production in both.

Which, by the way, if you didn’t know – mantises’ closest cousin is cockroaches.

Chew on that, all you roach roasters.

Regardless.

In temperate areas like North Carolina – where we feel the cycle of seasons through spring, summer, fall, and winter – mantises are univoltine, meaning they produce a single generation in a year. Little mantises hatch en masse from their egg cases in the spring when it’s warm enough – swarming out in a wave of tiny bodies and big eyes, maybe eating a few of their siblings to start life out right – and live through the summer until they reach adulthood, when they mate, lay an egg case or two or three, and then die.

Temperatures drop, and freeze them all to death.

Fall in general is a good time for thinking about the inevitability of death. That’s really sort of what fall is for, isn’t it? You watch the leaves drop off their limbs and you think about how every life has a finish line, and when you cross it, you won’t be the triumphal runner in first place ripping down a ribbon, but the person who did the marathon because their friend goaded them into it and now you’re hobbling across, and the fanfare has died down, and there’s a little blood in your shoes.

But the tree isn’t really dead, right? It’s just the leaves. I’ve learned the reason it happens probably a dozen different times and it’s never stuck. I have some vague recollection of shedding toxins but that sounds too much like too many infomercials I’ve seen for sterile foot pads for me to take it seriously, even if it’s true.

And I guess from that you could take some broader metaphorical affirmation, about how even if once you snuff it by virtue of being alive as part of a broader whole – your family, your nation, your faith, the whole human race – some part of you lives on. But I’m not going to do that. Partially because I’ve never in my life felt less patriotic than I have staring down the barrel of a possible Trump presidency, but also because that knowledge has never made death feel any less death-y to me. It’s still a looming inevitability there’s no way out of. It’s still a great unknown – anathema to anyone with an all-consuming curiosity.

But I think also – it doesn’t have to be something so terrible. In the same way being acutely, consumptively aware of your own cosmic insignificance can be a curse or a blessing, so too can knowing, every moment, that death is waiting, and it’s just a matter of time. It’s not just a threat, it’s a promise. I’m going to die, and you’re going to die, and very very quickly, so will that lovely green (or brown) example of approximately what a centaur would be if their anatomy made any sense at all.

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