You may not have heard of “crazy ants,” but if your home has been invaded by the creatures, then you know how destructive they can be!
Crazy ants have been known to swarm breaker boxes on homes, air conditioning units, sewage pumps, and other electrical devices in some parts of the southeastern US. They’re originally from South America but have been spreading for the past two decades.
Their full name is the tawny crazy ant or Nylanderia fulva. They have invaded the Gulf Coast region in recent years. Scientists say that individual infestations can be huge, sometimes spanning miles in diameter.
But now, researchers at the University of Texas Austin may have found a way to stop the invasive ant species. Scientists at the university have found a fungal pathogen that could be the key to stopping the ants. Spores from the pathogen, microsporidian, fill the abdomens of the crazy ants, taking over the insect’s fat cells to transform them into spore factories, according to UT Austin.
Scientists with Brackenridge Field Laboratory first observed this happening in crazy ants collected from Florida eight years ago. The pathogen was then found in crazy ants at sites across Texas.
A team observed 15 populations in Texas for eight years and found every population stricken by the pathogen declined, and 62% of them disappeared altogether. Scientists think the colonies could have collapsed because the pathogen cuts the lifespan of worker ants short, making it hard for a group to survive through winter, UT Austin said.
This specific pathogen only affects crazy ants in this way. Native ants and other arthropods seemed to be unharmed, according to UT, so researchers thought it was the perfect solution to the crazy ant problem.
The Brackenridge Field Laboratory team tested out their theory in 2016 by deploying the pathogen at Estero Llano Grande State Park, which is located in Weslaco, Texas. UT said the park was plagued by crazy ants, and it was losing wildlife like scorpions, snakes, lizards, rabbits, and birds to the insects.
For the test, the team used crazy ants from other sites that already had microsporidian and put them near the nesting sites of crazy ants in the park. UT said the team then used hot dogs to attract the local ants and merge the two groups.
In the first year of the experiment, UT said the pathogen spread to the entire crazy ant population in Estero. Within two years, the population numbers took a nosedive. Today, crazy ants are “nonexistent” in the park, and native species are bouncing back.
Researchers have also depleted a second crazy ant community in an area of Austin. They plan to test this method more this spring at other Texas sites, researchers said.