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Mantids – the good, the bad and the just plain wrong – on view at film fest

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
217-333-5802; jebarlow@uiuc.edu

2/2/2006

May Berenbaum
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Entomology professor May Berenbaum, founder of the Insect Fear Film Festival at Illinois, is focusing on praying mantids at this year's festival on Feb. 18.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Kung Fu martial artists of the two-legged variety are coming to the 23rd annual Insect Fear Film Festival on Feb. 18, riding the coattails of this year’s highlighted insect and kicking off – so to speak – an evening devoted to “Mantis Movies.”

Praying mantids, all 2,000 species of them, are instantly recognizable and well loved by most people – despite being ravenous predators that devour whatever they can catch. Their habit of standing with forelegs folded as if in prayer has drawn admiration in many cultures through time.

The name “mantis” comes from the Greek word for a prophet or seer, a reference to the belief that the insects possess supernatural powers. The mantids’ striking, grasping leg motions even drew scrutiny from Chinese martial artist Wang Lang during the Ming Dynasty 400 years ago. Inspired by seeing a mantis bring down a much larger cicada, Lang studied the insect’s predatory style and eventually founded an entirely new fighting style, Tang Lang Ch’uan, or Praying Mantis Kung Fu.

Aside from their predatory prowess, mantids are renowned for a less admirable behavior – sexual cannibalism.

However, the notion that female mantids devour their mates after, or even during, sex may be a grotesque exaggeration, says May Berenbaum, the festival founder and head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Although female mantids occasionally eat their mates under highly artificial laboratory conditions, it’s observed extremely rarely in nature. Yet, she said, it’s an enduring theme in Hollywood movies and cartoons.

Dispelling misinformation about insects is what the Insect Fear Film Festival, which Berenbaum began in 1984, is all about.

“The festival this year will be a good opportunity to explode the many, many mantid myths that Hollywood has exploited for sensationalistic purposes,” Berenbaum said. “People can come to see the true mantis in all its glory.”

The festival will be held at the Foellinger Auditorium, on the south end of the Quad. Doors open at 6 p.m., at which time local martial artists will begin live demonstrations on stage of a variety of mantid-inspired Kung Fu styles. Exhibitions, including live mantids and pinned specimens, and T-shirt sales will be in the foyer. Remarks begin at 7 p.m., with cartoons to begin at 7:15 p.m. Admission to the festival, sponsored by the Entomology Graduate Student Association, is free.

“The festival gives entomology graduate students an opportunity to share our enthusiasm for insects with the community,” said Annie Ray, association president. “Insects are scary and foreign to many people, and they get a lot of bad press. At the IFFF, people can ask questions and learn about insects – the good and bad, scary and beautiful.”

The praying mantis Illinois residents are most apt to see is the so-called Chinese mantis; tan to pale green in color, it is among the largest in the world, growing up to 3.5-inches long, and was imported into the U.S. over a century ago to control pest insects.

Rather than chasing down their prey, Berenbaum said, mantids blend into their environment, waiting patiently for unsuspecting victims, including, on occasion, small birds and lizards, to stumble into their paths.

Among the reasons many people find mantids so appealing, Berenbaum said, is that “they can look you in the eye; they are among the very few insects with a functional neck on which a head can swivel. Not many insects are capable of meeting your gaze, and people somehow find this endearing.”

People are usually surprised to learn that the closest living relatives to mantids are cockroaches. Despite the lack of outward similarities in appearance and behavior, entomologists know that these two groups of insects share similar genitalia and egg-packaging equipment.

The festival’s film lineup for visitors to gaze upon includes these short films:

• “The Mantis Parable,” an eight-minute, multiple award-winning 2005 film by Joshua Staub, art director of Cyan, which created Myst, Riven and URU: Ages Beyond Myst. Atop a table belonging to an insect collector, the misadventures of a caterpillar and a mantis are chronicled.

• An episode of “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” featuring Zorak the giant alien mantis. In this cartoon adventure (Urges, Episode 18, 1995), Zorak wants to go to his home planet for the annual mantis-mating season but fears the deathly consequences.

• “”Mantis Stalks Its Prey,” a four-minute Chinese paper-cut animation about a mantid that has to dodge its own predators while trying to catch a meal.
The main attractions lined up to date for the evening will include:

• “The Deadly Mantis,” a 1950s science-fiction film that Berenbaum describes as “classic Insect Fear Film Festival material,” which generally means inaccurate insect anatomy, impossible physiology, and absurd behavior, as well as bumbling scientists. A giant praying mantis preserved in ice from prehistoric times is freed by nuclear testing and wreaks havoc until a climactic showdown in New York City.

• “Teacher’s Pet,” an hour-long episode from the first season (1995) of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” A substitute high-school biology teacher with a fully rotating head – an insect in disguise – becomes the favorite of the boys at homework time, but Buffy suspects something’s amiss and that her friend Xander may be in big trouble.

The Insect Fear Film Festival is the oldest, continuous public university celebration of insects.