WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – July 15, 2013 – If you’re in Texas, Florida or other Southern states this summer, watch out for “crazy ants,” warns Edward LeBrun, a University of Texas researcher who studies the species.
Also known as Nylanderia fulva, they’re called “crazy” because of their unpredictable movements and swarming populations. The bugs are reddish-brown, measure about one-eighth of an inch long and have a hankering for honeydew. They nest anywhere and are easily transported but, so far, have mostly infested Texas and several Southern states after being inadvertently transported from South America by humans.
They’ve spread to 24 counties in Texas, 20 in Florida and a few in Mississippi and Louisiana, says LeBrun’s study, which is published in the journal Biological Invasions. They cause almost $150 million in electrical damage a year because millions of ants are electrocuted in small circuits or wires, where they seek warmth, said a Texas A&M study published in April.
There’s no permanent solution yet, and fending off the ants is costly. Repeated treatments are needed to keep them from returning.
Susan and Paul Dans of Baytown, Texas, noticed the ants in 2010, when millions invaded their 3-acre lot. Struggling to keep the ants at bay using chemical sprays every two weeks, Susan Dans says she “felt overwhelmed.” It became difficult to walk or stand outside – she couldn’t even let her dogs in the yard.
“It’s just a frenzy,” she says. “They’re everywhere.”
Then the couple saw a TV interview with Tom Rasberry, the Texas pest exterminator credited with identifying the vexatious insects in 2002. Rasberry says he has been able to ward them off and, on two occasions, eliminate an entire colony with the insecticide Termidor (fipronil). Initially used for termites, it was approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for emergency use in Texas. If used incorrectly, it can kill bees, birds and aquatic animals, including fish.
“We can kill them,” he says of the ants. “But unless you can control the entire area, the best we can do is keep them at bay.”
The Danses still get treatments every three months at a cost of about $2,300 a year. To avoid paying even more, they treat only a 1-acre area around their house. They say the other 2 acres is wasting away, decreasing its property value. “It’s sad because you have no control,” Susan Dans says. “You just don’t see daylight.”
LeBrun’s study says the ants aren’t just a costly nuisance: They’re displacing other aggressive species, such as fire ants, and throwing the whole Southern ecosystem out of whack.
“It’s not a good trade,” says Robert Puckett, an associate research scientist at Texas A&M University who also studies the species. “Some people think they’d prefer to deal with crazy ants. But once they invade, people want their fire ants back.”
Though crazy ants don’t have a nasty stinger like fire ants, they do bite. Mounds are decentralized and can create larger supercolonies. And, as Rasberry knows, the insect’s kryptonite has yet to be discovered – typical insecticides have no effect.
In Colombia, they have replaced all other ant species, killing small animals by asphyxiation. They have attacked the eyes, noses and hooves of larger animals, such as cattle, and dried out entire grasslands.
LeBrun says scientists from both South and North America know little about the ant. The best thing to do, he says, is avoid transporting them by closely monitoring belongings when traveling and take advantage of available treatments until researchers can find better answers.
“We can really make a difference,” he says. “But we need to be careful, and we need to know more.”
Rasberry isn’t as optimistic: “It’s gone too far. There’s no turning back.”