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Posted: Tuesday, 18 February 2014 6:09AM

Fire ants fighting a losing battle against their crazy cousins



Those pesky fire ants in your back yard may have met their match

There's an arms race going on underground, maybe right under your feet. And our relatively new 'crazy ants' are whipping the familiar fire ants we've dealt with for so long.

These two kinds of ants are fighting each other over food and nesting sites across the southeastern United States. And the crazy ants have come up with a defensive weapon.

"What they do is spray formic acid, which neutralizes the venom of fire ants," says LSU entomologist, Dr. Gregg Henderson.

They smear their own brand of venom on their bodies after being hit with venom by a fire ant foe, successfully detoxifying themselves.

This chemical defense system represents a game-changer in the battle between these two ant species.

Fire ants dominate most other types of ants by splattering them with powerful, typically fatal venom that is even more toxic than DDT. But when a crazy ant gets hit, it resorts to its detoxification procedure. It stands on its hind and middle legs, oozes formic acid from a gland at the tip of its abdomen, smears it on its body and neutralizes the fire ant venom.

Dr. Gregg Henderson, says the crazy ant, because of this defense system and its huge population, may be able to out compete the fire ant. But that's not necessarily good news for homeowners.

"Unfortunately, what it means is that we may have more of a problem with crazy ants than we thought," Henderson says. "Crazy ants don't sting, but their populations are so large that they cause a huge nuisance, nesting in houses and piling into the electrical circuitry."

He says they can cause considerable harm to electrical equipment. And, they're not going to eliminate their stinging cousins.

"Fire ants are a big issue. They're going to be with us forever in the southern states. But it does appear that this tawny crazy ant does have a methodology to help control them for their own purposes, not for ours," says Henderson.

Well, not yet, at least.

"Crazy enough, next week we're going to do a laboratory experiment to see if we can actually use formic acid as a way to keep fire ants out of houses."

The tawny crazy ants, are known for their butterscotch color and the erratic way they walk when foraging for food.

 

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Locations : Southeastern United States
People : Gregg Henderson
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