Interestingly enough the mantis is as elusive as it is still and mysterious.  As the Bible says in the book of Jeremiah 29:12-14, You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  You can find roaches and mice easily by just going to you local city abandoned buildings.  You can find ants everywhere, just go to picnic table.  Why are all the interesting creatures to hard to find?  You many have to search weeks to come face to face with the mighty gray wolf.  You will have to travel hundreds of miles to meet a leopard or lion in the wild.  All the good ones are worth searching for.  I think that is how God made them.

Let’s pan out and look at the big picture.  Like many insects, mantids occur on most continents, but more abundantly in biodiversity hotspots such as tropical rainforests, though a number species have adapted to arid, semi-arid, and temperate regions.

When you’ve been at a certain location for some time, then the question becomes dependent on your current location.  Though I’ve never done an official survey in the state of NJ, I would guess (from casual observations) that mantids occur more frequently in areas of vegetation- trees, long grass, etc.  I could tell you with a certain confidence that you’d more likely find mantids in Hunterdon and Warren Counties, than Sussex and Essex Counties.  I’ve certainly seen more mantids in the grasses and forests of Hunterdon & Warren than in the urban towns within Sussex and Essex. 

Having resided in Essex County, NJ for 14 years, I can say that we found three juvenile mantids, but if I remember correctly, it was only in a span of probably 1 year (2 summers).  Two were found in the backyard, one was on our neighbor’s house.  They certainly were not a common occurrence in that area during those 14 years (unless I was just terrible at spotting them).  When relocating to Warren County across the other side of NJ, we get more of an agricultural and natural vegetative scene.  In this area (and neighboring Hunterdon County), Chinese mantids, (Tenodera aridifolia sinensis), are relatively prolific.  They are not seen every day, but enough to say ‘they occur here’.  Ironically, they are not native in the US.

Can we find mantids in big city areas?  I would venture to say that you would not see any mantids if you spend a month’s vacation in New York City.  But in saying that, however, I do remember watching US Open Tennis on TV, and during a match, it showed a live video of a mantis which I believe was on top of the stadium of Center Court (just behind the furthest seats).  The US Open tournament is held in Flushing Meadows, NY, just a subway ride from Manhattan, so anything is possible.

Throughout my years in the temperate region of North-eastern USA, I’ve seen two (possible three) species of mantids.  Within the two years of living in the Tropical climate of Northern Queensland, Australia, I’ve seen about a dozen species.  Several of those species were abundant enough for collection and breeding.  Four of the most abundant species (from my observation) are Orthodera ministralis, Tenodera australasiae, Archimantis latistyla, and Ciulfina sp

Within human habitats, O. ministralis, the ‘Garden Mantids’, are often seen in their adult stage (both males and females) on walls and windows in the lights during the warm/wet seasons.  Due to their relatively small size, they are difficult to spot in the bush.  I have seen/caught only one juvenile specimen residing in the long grass.  T. australasiae, the ‘Purple-winged Mantids’, and A. latistyla, ‘Grass/Stick Mantids’ are often seen in their adult stage (mostly males) on lighted walls during the warm/wet seasons.  

T. australasiae are widespread around human habitat and in the bush.  Adult A. latistyla are massive mantids in terms of length, therefore easier to spot (compared with other species) in the long grass.  Ciulfina sp, the ‘Running tree Mantids’, from my observation, are not found around human habitats, however they are widely abundant residing literally on the trees within the rainforest.  Mantids are typically slow-moving insects (not including their lightning-speed strikes), however Ciulfina sp are exceptions.  They are among the fastest running insects I’ve personally seen.  

I should also mention several other specieswhich you may come across in Tropical Northern QLD if you spend enough time there.  Hierodula majuscula, the ‘Giant Australian/Rainforest Mantids’ are what I call “Australia’s finest”.  In terms of bulk, they are the largest of Australian mantids and a “must have” if you are a collector.  Sphodropoda mjobergi, the ‘Burying Mantids’, slightly shorter in length than H. majuscula, but similar bulky build, are also seen occasionally.  Neomantis australis, the tiny ‘Net-Winged Mantids’, I suspect are more abundant than they seem, but their extremely small size keeps them out of sight from humans.  I have not done any official survey or studies on them, but I did observe several specimens at one time underneath the outdoor roofs covering the footpaths of James Cook University.

The key word here is ‘find’, and it is a variable dependent on camouflage.  Like many organisms, mantids depend on camouflage for survival, and they are among the best of the animal kingdom at this adaptation.  When searching for mantids within their natural habitats, you may look in the right places, you may even walk by or stand next to them, but you will not necessarily see or find them.  So essentially, even if I could tell you where to look for mantids, it is far from certain that you’ll find them.

In particular circumstances, mantids may be found in clusters (typically only one species inhabiting the area, and often physically isolated).  In the later part of 2011, a small patch of tall grass existed along Captain Cook Highway at James Cook University in QLD.  This patch has since been destroyed, but I was fortunate enough to collect more than several A. latistyla specimens for study and rearing prior to the landscape reconstruction.  A number of juveniles resided on this patch of grass and with such great abundance of prey items in Tropical QLD, competition between mantids did not seem like an issue.  This is one of those rare situations where I could have told you “I know exactly where to find mantids”.

It is also possible to find a specimen in a small isolated area where it would reside its entire life (or until maturity if it’s a male which would eventually fly off to mate).  I have observed a T. aridifolia sinensis one summer years ago inhabiting a small bush in the backyard in Warren County, NJ.  This was a female specimen which reached maturity and stayed within her territory.  In this situation, I could have said “Yes, I know where you can find one”.

I have never attempted this, but I have heard of mantids (mostly adult males) being “lured” by using black light.  I have certainly seen male mantids attracted to regular lights during the hours of darkness.  During heavy monsoons in Tropical QLD, I have also observed mantids taking refuge under human-construction (and have taken advantage of those situations).

So you’ll need to take into account certain variables to narrow it down.  It depends on your location, species, time of year, and luck—will mantids be at the exact spots where your eyes happen to scan and at those particular times?  So if you were to ask me or anyone else who studies/collects mantids, we may point you in right direction, but unless you have a team of explorers and take the time for a thorough search, I would say the chances that you would find one (except in particular circumstances) are small.  But with that said, you may walk out your door and have a mantid staring you in the face, or you may take a walk in an urban area and see one on the ground in front of you.  I was fortunate enough to come across an adult female H. majuscula literally on the sand at Missions Beach, QLD, completely out of its arboreal habitat. 

In essence, my answer to the question is based on individual circumstances and no certainties.  But if you, the reader, are genuinely interested in finding mantids, then I hope that this excerpt, combined with determination, tenacity, and some common sense, can lead you closer to your search and eventually earn your prize.