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April 2009 cover image dorrado fish in the gulf

Crazy Ants

Experts predict that new invasive species could impact native ecosystems.
By Sheryl Smith-Rogers

Barbara Nemitz remembers feeling unconcerned when a street paving crew triggered an ant swarm near her Pearland residence in winter 2003. Then literally millions invaded her home the following spring. Unable to get rid of them, she called an exterminator, but pesticides had little effect. Six years later, Nemitz continues to battle the reddish-brown insects, which have shorted out several electric pumps and the motor of her driveway gate.

Besides costing her thousands in property damage, Nemitz worries that the tiny ants will harm the native wildlife on her surrounding 10 acres. “Every year, I rescue baby snakes that come to our porch to get away from them,” she says.

Experts also fear how colonies of Rasberry crazy ants — a new invasive species in Texas — could impact not only wildlife but endanger healthcare facilities as well. So far, the crazy ants have spread into 11 counties — Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Hardin, Harris, Jefferson, Liberty, Montgomery, Orange, Walker and Wharton — since their discovery at a chemical plant in Pasadena in 2002.

Rasberry crazy ants get their name from Tom Rasberry, the Pearland exterminator who first officially reported them. So far, researchers believe the ants — which measure 1/8 inch long — are closely related to the Caribbean crazy ant (Paratrechina pubens), a tropical species that’s plaguing Florida. As their name implies, crazy ants crawl rapidly in erratic patterns.

“There’s a big argument as to whether this is a new species or not,” says Roger Gold, an entomologist with Texas A&M University. “We don’t really care. We just want to manage their populations.”

Therein lies the problem: Crazy ants reproduce at alarmingly high rates in colonies that host multiple queens. What’s more, the pests have no natural predators in Texas. They nest under anything that retains moisture, including rocks, landscape timbers, potted plants and boards. Their numbers and activity peak by mid summer, slowing considerably in winter months. When disturbed, the ants — which lack a stinger but can bite — swarm from a nest, then move to another site.

Because they eat nearly anything (including fire ants and small animals), crazy ants often forage indoors, infesting homes, businesses and industrial plants. At least two chemical plants reported being “shorted out” by the ants, and one had to be shut down completely. Dozens of homeowners like Nemitz have suffered similar property damage, and real estate agents complain that they can’t show houses crawling with ants.

“I’m very concerned if these ants get into nursing homes, hospitals and day care facilities,” Gold says. “Like pharaoh ants, they may have the ability to spread pathogens. This is an ant species that certainly deserves attention from our federal and state governments.”

Toward the goal of controlling their spread, the Texas Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have established the Texas Paratrechina Best Management Practices Task Force. In the meantime, homeowners who suspect they have crazy ants should call a pest management professional.

“Keep your property well maintained and your grass cut,” advises Rasberry, who blogs on the ants. “Pick up all debris, like limbs, leaves and rocks. Even a bucket left on the ground can become a nesting point.”

“If we don’t start researching these ants now,” Rasberry cautions, “they could devastate ecosystems along the Texas Gulf Coast. These ants are going to have a dramatic effect on all small wildlife.”

For more information on Rasberry crazy ants, go online to urbanentomology.tamu.edu or to crazyrasberryants.blogspot.com.

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