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Crazy ants threaten U.S. ecosystem, economy

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Although tiny, Rasberry crazy ants swarm in the billions and are creating massive problems in southeast Texas. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) Although tiny, Rasberry crazy ants swarm in the billions and are creating massive problems in southeast Texas. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Crazy ants are drawn to electrical appliances and short them out with their sheer numbers. When they are electrocuted, they emit a smell that attracts millions of other ants. (Source: Tom Rasberry) Crazy ants are drawn to electrical appliances and short them out with their sheer numbers. When they are electrocuted, they emit a smell that attracts millions of other ants. (Source: Tom Rasberry)

(RNN) - If you haven't heard of Rasberry crazy ants yet, you will. They're coming to a backyard near you. By the trillions.

A single trail of the invasive South American ants first turned up near Houston, TX, in 2002. Within a year, there were hundreds of millions of them on the same site.

The invaders from South America have spread to 24 Texas counties, and there are more than 1,000 infestations in Harris County, where they vastly outnumber the 4.1 million people who live there. They have been confirmed in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida and have almost certainly gained a foothold in neighboring Gulf Coast states.

They are called "crazy" because of their quick, random movements.

They reproduce in mind-boggling numbers, drive off or kill insects and animals on land they occupy. They can also short out appliances, drive homeowners to distraction and even shut down a chemical plant by fouling computer equipment.

"If you go to a rural area they've taken over, it's silent. What you hear is nothing, no grasshoppers, no birds, nothing but the wind going through the leaves," said Tom Rasberry, the Pearland, TX, exterminator who discovered that first colony in 2002.

It earned him the dubious honor of having the pests named for him. They are also known as the tawny crazy ant because of their light-brown coloration.

For humans, home infestation creates a miserable situation. Grandma can't watch TV without ants crawling on her legs, as Rasberry put it. Whole neighborhoods in Houston have been overtaken, he said.

"I've been into homes where you couldn't drop a dime on the floor without hitting three or four ants," he said. "I've seen 55-gallon drums full of them, nothing but dead ants. I've seen 18-inch-wide trails going up trees after honey bees."

Highly adaptable; hard to kill

There are other similar species in North America, but the tawny crazy ant is the one that gives experts nightmares. They are tiny – less than 1/8 of an inch long. They don't sting, but that's as good as the news gets.

You don't exterminate the invaders so much as contain them, Rasberry said. Treatment is expensive and requires repeated applications that can cost thousands of dollars a year, far too expensive for many who have been affected.

Every single home in a neighborhood has to be treated, or the ants will be back in a matter of days, Rasberry said.

They are tropical insects, so they die off in the winter. But when spring comes, they repopulate quickly, doubling or tripling their numbers every two weeks, he said.

They've been discovered in North Texas, where the winters can be quite cold. Rasberry said he's seeing more and more instances of the ants migrating indoors where it's warm when the weather turns cold, an adaptation he seldom saw a few years ago.

Commercially available pesticides - sprays and powders you buy at retail stores - don't work well. Crazy ants don't eat the baited poisons that can control fire ants, another Deep South nemesis the crazy ants are steadily killing off. It costs a few billion dollars a year to control fire ants, and that's a drop in the bucket compared to what it could cost to contain the new ants.

Raspberry said in dollars and cents terms, if research isn't stepped up and if the spread continues, controlling crazy ants "is going to make fire ants look like Christmas.

"I've been screaming about this for 10 years but the right people aren't listening," he said. He foresees a related crisis that could be as bad as the ant infestation.

If a homeowner tries to treat his own property, he'll probably buy a commercial product. It won't work. So he'll buy more and double the dosage. It fails again. So he repeats the process, using even more.

"When all is said and done, some guy's put 200 pounds of poison on an area where 10 pounds is recommended. Then it rains. The poison gets into the water table," Rasberry said.

Multiply that by thousands of frustrated people trying to kill ants that won't die.

Trillions. And. Trillions.

Crazy ants swarm in numbers that are hard to believe even for a guy who has seen a lot of bugs. Robert Puckett, who is a PhD. in entomology, a researcher and teacher at Texas A&M University, was among the first to study the species.

 "When I first started talking with folks who'd worked with the original infestations, when they told the stories of what they'd seen, I thought, well, this is hyperbole, this can't be true," Puckett said. "Then I saw it."

The catastrophic effect these insects could have on agriculture, the economy and entire ecosystem of the Southeast is the kind of thing that keeps Puckett awake at night.

They climb trees and invade bird nests – what would happen if they took over a chicken farm? How would they affect, cattle, other livestock? Could they infest feed, crops in the field, silos packed with grain or sugarcane?

Rasberry is horrified by the possibilities.

"There are no products labeled for pastureland. None. Zero," he said. "Nobody is funding research. I was on the Crazy Ant invasive Task Force. It was a dog-and-pony show for the public. They never did anything. It's already too late to stop them. The longer we wait to do the research to control them, there's nothing we can do."

Puckett is less outspoken, but he's worried, too.

"We have seen situations where they raided commercial honeybee hives," Puckett said. "That's a real concern. It's difficult to speculate, but they are definitely capable of doing significant ecological damage."

In an urban setting, they can take over entire neighborhoods , Puckett and Rasberry agreed.

And they'll eat your iPhone, destroy your air conditioner in the summer and make outdoor barbecues a thing of the past.

"In urban systems, they short out everything known to man," Rasberry said. "They get into wall sockets, security systems, computer systems."

When the ants get into electrical devices – TV sets, cell phones, electrical outlets, refrigerators – they get electrocuted. When they die, they emit a pheromone that attracts other ants  that respond in droves.

The carcasses form bridges the living ants can cross to a safe area. The same thing happens when they are killed by pesticides. The ants simply cross the bridge of dead ants to areas where there is no  poison.

Puckett  witnessed how the ants affect human behavior. When he was asking permission to take samples in the yards of people whose neighborhoods were infested, he noticed they had developed repetitive tics, as if they were brushing invisible ants off their bodies.

"I knocked on the door, it was in the afternoon in the summer, and people were wearing shorts and sandals, sometimes coming to the door barefoot," he said."They kept brushing their feet together, as if they had ants on their bare feet. They were so used to having ants crawling on their bodies, it had become habitual. I couldn't believe what I was seeing … human beings whose behavior had been changed."

Rasberry has met customers who are not comfortable letting their children play in the yard.

"Would you want your 2-year-old covered with 400 or 500 ants?" he said. "I've had people tell me their dogs won't go outside to use the bathroom. Not because they get stung, because it's so uncomfortable to have ants crawling on them."

Can they be stopped?

Crazy Ants spread fairly slowly without help from humans. But in a mobile society like the U.S., they have traveled thousands of miles, and since they nest almost anywhere, they are spreading farther, faster than fire ants did when they were imported to the U.S. about 50 years ago.

If somebody buys an infested potted plant at a nursery and takes it home, the whole neighborhood is soon infested. The ants can hitchhike in cars or trucks. If they infest a shipping container, they can be taken by boat anywhere in the world – which is probably how they got to Houston in the first place.

Right now, Puckett said, the focus has to be on suppressing the numbers of ants. That's hard because they nest underneath debris, have multiple queens and the colonies intermingle and cooperate when they come in contact. Most other species of insects kill each other off  when competing for food and territory.

While the problem is a clear and present danger, Puckett urges caution because an improper reaction could make a bad situation  worse.

"Science moves most efficiently when it moves slowly," he said. "We first need to develop new chemicals to deal with these guys. We need practical solutions, research, using tools we have available in the short term.

"Once we have some relief a bit, we can look into larger research programs."

That could include what he called "bioprospecting," which involves searching the ants' South American native habitat for natural enemies that hold them in check. A few years back, a wasp that lays its eggs on fire ants and eventually kills the host was used effectively.

But any solution like that is way down the road, Puckett said. First, you have to make sure those species aren't as bad or worse than the one you're trying to get rid of.

Perhaps the most difficult part of treatment – once it finally reaches a stage where official entities start to fund research and seek solutions – is going to be getting people to work together against the ants.

"Carving out a zone within the infestation range, that's probably our best bet right now," Puckett said. "We will have to encourage people to work together because you don't find ants in a single house – it's the whole neighborhood. It'll take organization, neighborhood associations, that sort of thing."

Getting people to work together isn't easy, Puckett acknowledged. But if crazy ants can't forge a common cause, nothing can.

"Once you see these ants, they provide enough motivation to force people to try to organize against them," he said. "Their numbers, even when you see it, you can't believe it. It's impossible to imagine."

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