Back in 2011 the Spisso family from Washington D.C. had just enjoyed another Christmas together. Like any American family, they had a Christmas tree in their home to help them celebrate the festive season. However, when the time came to remove the tree, to their horror scores of little critters emerged.
In the run-up to Christmas, it’s relatively simple to find a place selling trees. According to a study by Pennsylvania State University, Americans splurge an incredible $250 million on Christmas trees every year. Furthermore, for those prepared to wait, trees become progressively cheaper as the big day approaches.
Although most people buy their tree ready-cut to take home, some choose to actually chop it down themselves. And in 2011 the Spisso family were among that number. Matt Spisso, his wife Heather, and their three kids Maya, Maddy and Zach traveled to Hardee Farms, Maryland, to pick out a tree and cut it down. The location is somewhat famous in the area, as Hardee Farms has been selling Christmas trees since 1962.
The Spissos picked December 3 to get their tree, which just happened to be a Saturday. In fact, that’s actually a very popular time to pick up these festive favorites. Indeed, data suggests that the first Saturday following Thanksgiving is when most Americans prefer to buy a tree.
Christmas tree farms have become a widespread business in Maryland thanks to this kind of demand. Yet growing the trees is no easy task. In fact, they require a lot of maintenance. As well as spraying the trees with herbicides and fungicides to counteract disease, farmers also have to watch out for insects, rodents, drought and fire.
Whether or not the Spissos were aware of all this isn’t clear. What is known is that the family enjoyed a regular Christmas. Of course, when the season was finished, though, the tree needed removing. However, a few days before the family was due to get rid of the tree, the five of them made a surprising discovery.
As they came to take the tree down, the family discovered hundreds of small creatures. The majority of these were clustered around the Christmas tree, but many had also spread to the interior walls and even the stairway. Studying them further, the creatures turned out to be baby praying mantises.
Intrigued and not a little perturbed, the Spissos subsequently found a small nest attached to one of the tree’s branches. The nest was roughly the size and shape of a walnut. Praying mantis nests have a hardened outer shell to protect the eggs inside through the winter. However, when brought inside a heated structure like a house, the eggs are tricked into thinking it is spring and consequently hatch early.
Moreover, although the Spissos didn’t know it at the time, mantis nests are an increasingly frequent problem for those buying Christmas trees. Indeed, some people have shared stories online about their own nest-related Christmas tree incidents. And one such person was Daniel Reed.
“If you happen to see a walnut sized/shaped egg mass on your Christmas tree, don’t fret, clip the branch and put it in your garden,” Reed wrote on Facebook. “We had two egg masses on our tree this year. Don’t bring them inside, they will hatch and starve!”
Reed’s post went viral, with over 75,000 people sharing the warning about the mantis nests. And many readers were moved to comment, with attitudes ranging from gratitude to disgust at the thought of having so many insects hatch in their homes. One user even said she had suffered a mass hatching of hundreds of mantises.
The picture Reed shared was shown to an invertebrate zoology expert at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. And Dr. Gavin Svenson was quick to confirm that it did indeed show a praying mantis nest. He also explained what people need to do if faced with a similar scenario.
“The shared picture is definitely a praying mantis egg case, also called an ootheca,” Dr. Svenson said. “The praying mantises in the northern United States survive the winter as eggs in these protected cases. The warmth of spring spurs their development and hatching.”
Speaking to WOIO, Dr. Svenson added, “Putting the egg case outside quickly is critical if you want them to survive normally to hatch in the spring. Going from cold to warm and then back to cold can cause problems and reduce their chances of survival.” Good, considered advice, for sure, but Dr. Svenson’s guidance could still set a few minds thinking.
That’s because some people might wonder why on earth they would want the creatures to survive. But the truth is that praying mantises can be an excellent addition to your garden. The insects can actually reduce the number of other pests in your yard – annoyances such as flies, moths, and even locusts all feature heavily on the mantises’ menu.
Unfortunately, though, if mantises hatch inside your home, they probably won’t be able to find enough food to survive. And this could spell disaster: if the insects are starving, it’s likely they will begin turning on each other. This is the grisly scenario that faced the Spisso family.
Rather than be grossed out by the wanton cannibalism in their living room, though, the Spisso kids were enthralled. And they were likely even more excited when dad Matt bought them each a terrarium in which to house a few dozen of the mantises. As a result, the children could now study their new pets at will.
It seems young Maya Spisso especially enjoyed examining the mantises and witnessing how the insects drank water, or interacted with their terrarium. Dad Matt, meanwhile, was pleased with how his children dealt with the new additions to the family. “I think it’s neat,” he said. “I think it’s a learning experience for the kids.”
Before they released the insects, the children wanted to wait for warmer weather to give the mantises the best chance of survival. The Spissos were also curious to see the young insects turn from brown to green as they became adults. And to help the insects reach that stage, the kids fed the mantises with live crickets that their father bought.
As for mom Heather, well, she was relatively sanguine about the whole incident, despite the inconvenience of having to pick up all the little critters. “I’ve heard of some people having spiders in their trees, but I’ve never heard of praying mantises,” she said. “My mom used to say they were good luck… hopefully 2012 will be a good-luck year.”