Do Bugs Have Rights?


Pai-Shih Lee/Moment / Getty Images

If you've ever seen a praying mantis in person before you knew of its existence, you may have been frightened by its exotic looks. Its face alone would give anyone seeing it for the first time pause. The law of human nature dictates we fear what we don't know. But most would be fascinated and want to know what it is. Ladybugs must have better public relations people because everyone is happy to see a ladybug land on or near them. Butterflies, too, are beautiful and millions of people visit butterfly exhibits and preserves such as Butterfly World in South Florida annually just to bask in their presence. Those who believe in spirit guides, upon seeing a dragonfly expects a transition in their lives because dragonflies and damselflies are like the angel Gabriel, here to let you know there is a change coming. Fun fact about dragonflies: they are the only animal that is at home in the air, the water and on land.

Rumor has it there are penalties for killing a praying mantis. However, a review of state and federal laws will turn up nothing that specifically protects praying mantises and the whole thing appears to be an urban legend, They may be covered by some state animal cruelty laws that prohibit needlessly killing animals. But that’s doubtful. So it’s not illegal to kill them, it’s just a rotten thing to do.

What Is a Praying Mantis?

There are about 2,000 known species of praying mantises, but only twenty of them live in the U.S. All are insects of the order Dictyoptera, suborder Mantodea. The common name refers to the way they hold their front legs - like arms in prayer. They are masters of camouflage and blend into the branches, leaves, flowers, and ground where they live. All mantis species are carnivores, eating other insects, small mammals, lizards, frogs, and even their own mates.

What Is a Lady Bug?

Well, it’s not a bug, it’s a beetle. It has the same PR problems as does the Volkswagen Beetle. The Volkswagen people insist their little plump car is a Beetle. The rest of us call it a Bug. It makes us happy and they still sell cars so, no harm done. Entomologists call the ladybug Coleoptera and probably don’t sing songs about houses burning down. Ladybugs are garden-friendly and belong to an elite group of SEAL TEAM type forces called beneficial bugs. If you don’t have ladybugs in your garden, then you may have an enemy lurking under your Hibiscus leaves. They’re aphids, and they cause plenty of harm. The little bloodsuckers are responsible for destroying your foliage. Ladybugs love them, and home gardeners purchase them by the thousands and release them into their gardens.

What Is a Beneficial Insect?

Mantises, ladybugs, and butterflies, as well as many other insects, both beautiful and not-so-much, have a reputation as "beneficial insects" because they eat other insects in the home garden, but they do not discriminate between harmful and beneficial critters.

What's All This Have to Do With Animal Rights?

It is important to note that from an animal rights viewpoint, the concept of "beneficial" insects is highly anthropocentric. Every insect - every organism - has a place in the ecosystem. For example, a tick predates on a cow, a cowbird eats the tick and then flies around planting seeds that grow trees, etc. etc. To judge an animal as "beneficial" because they somehow help human interests ignores the fact that all animals have their own intrinsic value and are beneficial to themselves. Organic gardeners purchase ladybugs to release in their gardens to eat the destructive pests that eat the beautiful flowers and vegetables, so to gardeners, these beetles have a value. Cockroaches, despite having their own Spanish song, have no value. ​

Beneficial Bugs and Federal Law

As of 2016, no federal law protects beneficial insects such as the praying mantis and none of the “good bugs” enjoy any other federal animal protection law. Although mantises and ladybugs are not listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, plenty of other insects have been put on the list, mostly due to habitat loss and indiscriminate use of pesticides. But most bugs, being invertebrates, are explicitly excluded from Animal Welfare Act protection.


The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) also does not currently protect beneficial bugs. CITES is an international treaty that protects endangered and threatened species by regulating trade in those species. While CITES includes plants and animals, including insects, no species of praying mantis is listed under CITES as if 2013. However, even if a praying mantis species were listed, CITES applies only to international trade and would not govern whether someone can kill a praying mantis, ladybug or butterfly in their own backyard. But it would still be a rotten thing to do.

State Animal Cruelty Laws

This is where it gets interesting. Some state animal cruelty laws explicitly exclude all invertebrates (e.g. Alaska Stat §03.55.190) or all insects (e.g. New Mexico Stat §30-18-1) by excluding them from their definition of the word "animal."

However, some states do not exclude insects from their laws. For example, New Jersey's definition of "animal" includes "the whole brute creation" (N.J.S. §4:22-15). Minnesota's definition of "animal" is "every living creature except members of the human race" (Minn. Stat. §343.20).

In jurisdictions where insects are covered by the state animal cruelty statutes, the needless, intentional killing of an insect is illegal and may carry a fine or even imprisonment. Whether charges are filed and the case is actually prosecuted is a separate issue, however. I was unable to locate a single animal cruelty case involving a praying mantis or insect of any kind.

Praying Mantises, Animal Welfare, and Animal Rights

From an animal welfare or even an animal rights point of view, the current status of our laws is irrelevant to the question of whether it is wrong to kill a praying mantis or any other insect harmless to humans. From both an animal welfare and animal rights viewpoint, killing an animal for no reason cannot be morally acceptable. This is completely separate from whether an animal is endangered or whether the animal is "beneficial" to humans.