Bizarre-ketplace 4: Gut loaded

If garden pests are bugging you, Elise Covic, PhD'10, has just the solution.

Mantids.jpgAt the end of the academic year, UChicago Marketplace is infused with a sense of panic as graduating students seek to unload furniture, clothing, books, and random items like molecular model kits. “Price is negotiable!!” read one listing for a $200 dining table. “$50 OFF IF YOU PICK IT UP BY THURSDAY!”

Against this backdrop of crazed possession-dumping, Elise Covic’s listing, “Pet Praying Mantids/Natural Pesticide” stood out even more than it might have ordinarily. The listing included a large color photo, assurance that releasing mantids to the wild was legal and environmentally sound, and detailed instructions for pet care: “Make sure the prey has been gut loaded (feed a vitamin-enriched food to the prey, which will be passed on to the mantis).”

Covic, PhD’10, a researcher in Murray Sherman’s neurobiology lab, had this to say about her unusual hobby and her failed attempts to make money at it.

QandA_QDrop.jpgHow did you get into raising mantids?
QandA_ADrop.jpgA few summers ago I was tutoring this kid in second-grade math. One day he showed me his mantid enclosure and all these little baby mantids. I thought they were the coolest little creatures—so cool that I couldn’t pay attention to tutor him that day. I went home and bought a couple of pods online that night.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhere do you buy mantid pods?
QandA_ADrop.jpgYou can get them quite easily, actually. A lot of organic garden supply companies sell them as beneficial insects/natural pesticide. I have a balcony garden, and there were all these aphids and annoying little bugs eating my basil. But I didn’t want to put any pesticide down in case I needed to use my ovaries one day.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat does your boyfriend think about all the mantids in your apartment?
QandA_ADrop.jpgHe thinks it’s cool, up to a certain extent. He’s working on his dissertation right now, on economic crises. This year, when the first pod hatched, I stormed in there screaming. He gets kind of annoyed that I’m always trying to stop him to come look at the bugs. My old roommate and I used to like to sit on the back porch, drinking beer and watching the mantids hunt. We could do that for hours.
QandA_QDrop.jpgIs this the first year you tried to sell the hatchlings on Marketplace?
QandA_ADrop.jpgYes. In a 24-hour period, I had two pods hatch. I was incredibly poor, because I’m a new graduate—but I’m a terrible businesswoman. I pretty much gave them away to anyone who seemed interested. I sold, I think, a group of five mantids for $10. I gave away at least 50, mostly to undergrads who wanted them for pets.
QandA_QDrop.jpgDid your pods this year come from mantids you raised?
QandA_ADrop.jpgNo. I release so many outside every year, and I keep looking for their pods, but I can’t find any. They’re $12 for five pods, so it’s easier just to buy them. Last year I tried breeding them, but that didn’t exactly work out. If they did anything, I didn’t catch it. Maybe I needed some Barry White music.
QandA_QDrop.jpgAnything else you want to say about mantids?
QandA_ADrop.jpgWe have lab mantids every year. We name each mantis after a neuroscientist. Last year’s mantis was Eric Kandel. Our Chinese mantis this year was Mu-Ming Poo. And the European one is Bert Sakmann. You have to keep them as separate as possible or they’ll start to eat each other.

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

A garden gnome cowers as a freshly hatched praying mantis (lower right) approaches. Photography by Elise Covic.

June 18, 2010