Texas is a big state, that’s one of their claims to fame, maybe even right up there with their famous BBQ. So if you do any traveling through this Lone Star State, you will certainly have to get out and stretch your legs. Sounds safe enough unless you step out on the sandy side of the road right into a Fire Ant mound. I know this from personal experience and I really suffered the consequence, swollen itchy legs. Those things are mean. I didn’t mean to disrupt their happy home so couldn’t they have let me off with a warning? Justice soon may prevail, in the form of a diminutive hero, the Phorid Fly. Credit also goes to The University of Texas scientists who searched 20 years to find a capable opponent to seek vengeance on these nasty pests.
Immigration Problems in the Ant World
The fence between Mexico and Texas, to discourage illegal entry into the USA, has been in and out of the news. Especially because Mexicans involved in the drug wars have been going to Houston to purchase the weaponry used in this bloody battle. Thus immigration has become a very hot issue. Humans don’t present the only immigration problem. The trouble is no fence can stop the invasion of the red fire ant from South America, the aggressive Solenopsis invicta. In 1930 this vicious stowaway boarded a ship in Argentina and debarked in Mobile, Alabama. Not content to just menace the southeastern US, they headed to East Texas and their invasion was only slowed down by the cold, dry climate of the Texas Hill Country.
Messing with Texas
These fierce invaders are a formidable enemy. Armed with back-end stingers and serrated mandibles, they aggressively attack and injure or kill livestock and wildlife, particularly when animals step into or lie down on a mound. Their bites can also cause life-threatening allergic reactions in humans. Just recently I saw a sign posted at a home which read: HOME SECURITY PROVIDED BY FIRE ANTS. I thought it was funny but these ants can make a beautiful day out in the backyard impossible to enjoy. Farmers have had their mowing, shredding and baling equipment damaged by fire ant mounds. Even Texas native fire ants have been outnumbered and displaced by these foreigners. This is a problem because the native ants seldom bother anyone and they have natural enemies that keep their numbers down.
In the winter, fire ants look for a warm place to settle. Electric circuit boxes are such a place and the ants then have been known to cause shorts that start fires. Texas A&M University researchers say these red fire ants cost Texans about $1.2 billion a year in damage repair and the cost to try to fight them. The defense budget is staggering and, unfortunately, not providing the victory the cost would warrant.
Texas Messes Back
In the early 1980′s Larry Gilbert, professor of integrative biology and lab director, created The University of Texas Fire Ant Research Project. His goal was to find a self-sustaining, biological control method. Using the ants genes, researchers were able to find out where they specifically originated in South America. Then they had to find out who were their enemies. After narrowing it down from a small list, they came up with the perfect ‘ revenger’.
John Wayne made a more glorious ‘righter of wrong’ but could he have tackled fire ants? Not likely. So the tall, handsome type hero had to give way to a gray-brown, gnat-like insect from South America. Not only that but ‘he’ had to give way to a ‘she’. And, most notably, the glamorous ride into town with rapid gunfire and galloping horses, gives way to a more gruesome form of vengeance.
CIA TYPE TACTICS
Intrigue, drugs and mind control are sophisticated methods used by secret agencies to undermined the enemy. They could learn a thing or two from the tiny phorid fly. The female fly carefully sneaks up on a worker ant and lays its egg in its body. This secret agent’s egg hatches, somehow all ready to cooperate with the plot. The larva moves into the ant’s head. This causes the ant to lose control of its faculties, much like mind control, and he wanders off to die. This part reminds me of a scene from an old James Bond movie, the ant’s head falls off. What is left is a shell in which the larva pupates into an adult fly. All this takes place in about 45 days.
Scientists decided to collect some red fire ants from their mounds and bring them back to the lab. With what evil end in mind? They put their enemies in a ‘torture chamber’ not to make them talk-they can’t-but to be infected by secret agent lady flies (not spies) who delight in laying their eggs in these terrified captives. Now they return these infected ants to their original colonies where, if they could talk, no one would believe what had just happened to them.
Nuclear Warfare This Isn’t
Researchers can’t be sure just how many ants are dying from this method of control. Projections show that possibly 1% of the ant population is killed where the flies have been introduced. 200,000 to 250,000 fire ants live in a typical colony, so you do the math ( I would but I would probably get it wrong). I do know that’s a lot of ants that will no longer terrorize the Texas countryside. Over time ant populations are expected to decline by 15% a year.
It’s a Hard Life
Just like the Super hero who swoops in and turns the table on the villain, so the tiny phorid fly foils the plot of the villainous red fire ant. Death is not the only deterrent to a battling army. Remember Tokyo Rose? Okay I’m too young too, but I know she championed a psychological warfare against US forces during WWII. Well if you thought that, while you were working, your enemy could implant something into you that would turn you into a zombie until your head fell off and then you became some kind of nursery for the enemy that just killed you producing more enemies to kill off your family and friends, wouldn’t you find your work productivity hampered at least some? You’re not alone. The ants find reports of ‘incoming’ enemy flights or implanted fellow ants in their nest, unnerving, to say the least. So they gather less food, limiting the size of colonies and its ability to form new ones. Thanks to paroling phorid flies, fire ant mounds aren’t as big or numerous, so the alien ants are more equal in number to the native ants.
Victory In Sight?
The phorid secret agent flies have spread over about 160 million acres since the early 1990′s. That’s more than half the fire ant range in Texas. Have we just introduced a new ‘pest’ by bringing the phorid fly here? Scientists say that’s not likely because the fly only attacks their own South American fire ant, so if there were no more left, the fly would die off. Sounds good but I’ve seen too many movies where the monster created turns on their master. Time will tell, but no matter how well the fly does, researchers say there will never be complete victory over the red fire ant, just fewer numbers. No victory parades but perhaps a more peaceful and pleasant picnic in the backyard. Sometimes ‘better’ is all we can hope for.