Thursday, February 16, 2006

2006 Insect Fear Film Festival

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This Saturday the U of I’s Entomology Graduate Student Association will host the 23rd annual Insect Fear Film Festival, an event designed to get us thinking about insects without dwelling on ways to kill them. The focus of this year’s festival will be the group of insects commonly referred to as praying mantises, but known to entomologists as mantids.

With me today to bring us up to speed in advance of the festival are entomology graduate students Cindy McDonnell, Emilie Bess, and Jamie Zahniser.

I guess there’s no better place to begin a conversation about mantids than with the widely held notion that female mantids eat their mates.

Cindy here. That idea is weird enough for people to enjoy and remember really well. But although female mantids occasionally eat their mates under highly artificial lab conditions, they‘ve rarely been observed to do so in nature. Of course that doesn’t mean screenwriters and cartoonists are likely to let go of the idea.

(Rob) Mantids are also known as efficient eaters of bugs that harm gardens. How well does that idea hold up?

Emilie here. Mantids are effective predators, but they can’t keep up with the population growth of some pests, and they don’t discriminate between beneficial and harmful garden insects.

The mantids’ striking, grasping leg motions even got the attention of Chinese martial artist Wang Lang during the Ming Dynasty 400 years ago. Inspired by seeing a mantid bring down a much larger cicada, Lang studied the insect’s moves, and founded an entirely new fighting style, Praying Mantis Kung Fu.

(Rob) What can you tell listeners about the mantids they’re likely to see here in the midwest?

Jamie here. There are three species of mantids in Illinois, the European mantid, the Carolina mantid, and the Chinese Mantid.

The smaller, dusty brown Carolina mantid is the only one of the three native to the area. It’s just 2 inches long when full grown--that is, when it has wings. The pale green European mantid is intermediate in size, about 3 inches in length. The largest mantid found in the Midwest is the Chinese mantid, which is usually green and light brown, and ranges from 3 to 5 inches long. The European and Chinese species were introduced in the northeast about 75 years ago as garden predators in hopes of controlling the native insect pest populations.

(Rob) Interesting. Will any of these mantids show up in films at the festival?

(Cindy) Well, no. There is a giant, prehistoric praying mantis that eats people in our feature, The Deadly Mantis.

(Jamie) There’s also a teacher who turns out to be an evil mate-devouring mantid in an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer we’re going to show. In addition to that we’ll have some instructional videos on praying-mantis style kung-fu, and even a live demonstration from some martial arts masters.

(Emilie) In the lobby you’ll have a chance to see insect artwork by local children, and you may be able to hold some of the mantid’s closest relatives, giant hissing cockroaches.

(Rob) Wait a minute . . . cockroaches and mantids are cousins?

(Cindy) Come to the Insect Fear Film Festival.

(All) You’ve got a lot to learn about mantids!

The Insect Fear Film Festival takes place this Saturday, February 18th, in the Foellinger Auditorium on the U of I campus. The festival opens at 6:00 p.m., and films start at 7:00.