Crazy ant invades the US South

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 6:44am

The southern United States is being invaded - again. This time it is erratic but troublesome "crazy ants" from South America marching - actually, hitching rides - setting up massive colonies and relieving other occupying ant armies, including fire ants, of their duties.

With billions of ants possible per hectare, crazy ants, known for their random, jerky travel, eat or chase away most other insects and reptiles, and hound yard pets inside.

In single numbers pretty innocuous-looking, the tiny ants also make pests out of themselves by sometimes biting people and shorting out home electrical wiring.

The question now is whether there is room enough in the South for the newcomers, or whether the US needs to invest in research to figure out how to stop the "tawny crazy ant", as well as its cousins, the "black crazy ant" and the "Caribbean crazy ant", before they are ubiquitous.

"The entire Gulf coast is going to be inundated in a very short period of time," entomologist Tom Rasberry, who found and identified the crazy ants in 2002, recently told a local CBS News broadcast.

Having already spread in the span of a decade from a bunch of counties surrounding Houston to as far away as Florida, crazy ant success so far is entirely due to their hitchhiking skills.

A few ants clambering aboard at a truck stop in Waco, Texas, may soon find themselves starting a colony in Covington, Georgia. They thrive best in warmer, moister locales, which means the South is stuck with them.

But as with most invasive species, crazy ants can have unexpected, sometimes paradoxical, impacts on their conquered ground.

Fire ants, which were accidentally introduced in the 1930s and now pretty much own the South, apparently cannot stand crazy ants and retreat from the conquering horde, as do most other ant species.

And despite often legitimate cries of concern from the scientific community about the dangers of invasive plants and animals in the United States, many one-time strangers to these parts - kudzu, snakeheads, boas, Yankees - become, at least in the eyes of some Southerners, manageable pests, part of an ever-changing backdrop of wildlife at the door.

This being the South, even scientists have sought out biblical insights into how to view the invasion, including this from Proverbs 6:6-8 cited in a Texas A&M research paper about invasive ants: "Go to the ant, O sluggard/ Observe her ways and be wise/It has no commander/No overseer or ruler."