Houston, we have a problem--Rasberry crazy ants
Some people say they'd rather have the notorious fire ant in their yards than a newly found pest--the Rasberry crazy ant.
They're that bad, said Dr. Roger Gold, who heads the Center for Urban Structural Entomology at Texas A&M University.
Entomologists have been tracking the spread of Rasberry crazy ants in the Houston area since they were discovered in 2002, Gold said.
"They went from one site to 11 counties in just a few years," Gold said.
And they're not slowing down because common over-the-counter insecticides don't work well against the exotic pests, he said.
Though Rasberry crazy ants don't sting like fire ants, they wreak havoc on electrical systems and attack other wildlife, Gold said.
Apparently attracted to electrical equipment, the ants invade by the millions and can shut down anything from computer systems and communications networks to hospital data bases and airport security control panels, he said. Repairs might cost millions.
They displace fire ants, but also attack such beneficial insects as ladybugs and honeybees, Gold said. And they prey on the offspring of songbirds and ground-dwelling fowl like the endangered Attwater's prairie chicken.
"People were saying they'd rather have the fire ants than these little ants that invade their property at will," he said.
As spring and summer approach, Gold and members of the Crazy Ant Task Force are launching an educational campaign to inform people about the ants' presence and what to do about them.
"We're trying to raise awareness and keep people from spreading the ants," said Dr. Bart Drees, an entomologist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. "We also want to generate interest in research to develop effective control methods."
The ants were discovered in the Pasadena area by a pest control professional named Tom Rasberry, Gold said. Not knowing the species, he sent a sample to Texas A&M entomologists who determined that it appeared to be related to the Caribbean crazy ant, so named for the erratic way it crawls.
The new species was named after Rasberry, he said.
The ants were probably brought to Houston aboard a cargo ship traveling from the Caribbean, possibly St. Croix, Gold said.
They are a comparatively small ant and reddish brown, Drees said. They don't live in mounds, but nest throughout the landscape. They can be found under wood piles, bird baths, flower pots or other landscape features. Colonies often contain millions of ants.
As of 2008, Rasberry crazy ants were found in Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Hardin, Harris, Jefferson, Liberty, Montgomery, Orange, Walker and Wharton counties, and they are expected to spread to other areas, Gold said.
They have been spread by people moving plants, sod, potting mixture, fire wood and other items between locations, he said.
Information about possibly identifying the ant and what to do about them can be found at http://UrbanEntomology.tamu.edu and http://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/topics/rasberrycrazyant/, Drees said. Forms for sending samples for identification are also on the site.
"We're trying to direct traffic to the Web site," Drees said. "We want people to be funneled to the site, which can help them sort through ant species before sending samples to us."
For those who suspect an infestation, the best thing to do is hire a state-licensed pest control professional, Drees said. They have access to effective insecticides and equipment that the public does not.
But professional treatments aren't likely to be enough to slow the ants down, the entomologists said, as the pests can travel from neighboring properties and re-infest an area.
The public must help by learning about the ants and what to do about them, he said. To help reduce ants in an infested site, remove non-essential objects from the ground to discourage nesting. To avoid spreading ants, do not move plants, mulch or other ant-infested items to non-infested locations.
Members of the Crazy Ant Task Force are hoping to eventually land federal and state grants for research that would help develop effective control methods that could be widely used, the entomologists said.
The task force includes representatives from AgriLife Extension and Texas AgriLife Research, Texas A&M University Department of Entomology, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Parks Wildlife Department, Texas Nursery and Landscape Association and Budget Pest Control of Houston, Gold said.