Bug Lab is divided into several major themes (Display, Flight, Venom, Exoskeleton, Swarms and Silk) and today we’re taking a closer look at the star of our Display section, the beautiful and deadly orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus). Our model was lovingly built in large scale by the incredibly talented people at  Weta Workshop and was based on real specimens.

The orchid mantis is found in south-east Asian rain forests. As the name suggests, this insect looks like a flower. Early accounts of the orchid mantis even described it as a flower that walks! Like any other mantis, the orchid mantis is a predator. If an insect gets too close, she’ll snatch them out of the air with her modified front legs in less time than it takes for you to blink your eye.

Rather than just looking like a flower and ambushing prey, the genius of the orchid mantis is that her appearance tricks prey into flying right up to her.

Dr Phil Sirvid

To us, the orchid mantis looks like it’s able to use its floral camouflage to lie in wait for unsuspecting insects, but is that really what’s going on? Scientists James O’Hanlon, Greg Holwell and Marie Heberstein put this idea to the test. Rather than just looking like a flower and ambushing prey, the genius of the orchid mantis is that her appearance tricks prey into flying right up to her.

It turns out that it’s all about how insects see the world rather than how we see it.  Insects see more towards the Ultraviolet (UV) end of the light spectrum than we do and flowers can look very different under UV light.  Floral colour patterns under UV light are like a signpost to a pollinator, advertising pollen and nectar rewards. This is where the orchid mantis plays her deadly trick. The researchers found that to a pollinator seeing her through UV-sensitive eyes, the orchid mantis looks like the most attractive flower on show. They’re more likely to be drawn to the orchid mantis over a flower if given the choice. A bee might think the orchid mantis is promising tasty nectar treat, but flying too close to a mantis will be the last mistake it makes.

The Display section features a number of other things to see and do. We have video of the orchid mantis in action as well as an interview with James O’Hanlon, one of the scientists who studied this amazing animal. You can learn more how insects use display to attract, deceive and more and you can test if you’re a match for the strike speed of a mantis. There are also examples of how we are learning from bug display. For example, one of the chemical components that gives a firefly its glow is helping us test new drugs and you can see how the wing scales of the blue morpho butterfly are inspiring anti-counterfeiting strips on banknotes and tickets. There’s activities for the younger aspiring entomologists too!

Dr Phil Sirvid looks after the entomology collection at Te Papa and has an inordinate fondness for spiders. He is one of the swarm of people that helped develop the Bug Lab exhibition.

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Bug Lab

EXHIBITION

Coming to Auckland Zoo from the 20th of December, Bug Lab is a blockbuster science exhibition developed by New Zealand’s world-famous museum, Te Papa, with the Academy Award© winning Weta Workshop. Tickets on sale now.

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Video

Learn the secrets of the Orchid Mantis!

Comedian Tom Sainsbury sat down with Dr Phil Sirvid at our BUG stop to chat about the beautiful yet deadly orchid mantis.