Ed LeBrun and his fellow biologists at The University of Texas at Austin are looking for solutions to what is becoming Texas’ next big invasive insect problem — tawny crazy ants.
As reported by University of Texas News, in addition to devastating Texas’ ecosystems, crazy ants are threatening homes and shorting out electrical equipment such as sewage pumps. “They move into houses, which is very problematic for the homeowners,” says LeBrun, adding that pesticides are largely ineffective. “Residents I’ve spoken to in these environments that are infested with crazy ants say they want their fire ants back. These people are struggling, sweeping up dust pans full of dead ants every day.”
UT scientists want to get ahead of the curve and start controlling these populations before they spread throughout the southeastern United States, says LeBrun. “We’re pursuing sustainable control strategies that rely on finding natural enemies of crazy ants — that only impact the tawny crazy ant — and then introducing them as a way to sustainably manage crazy ant populations.”
LeBrun works with partners in South America to search for crazy ants’ natural enemies, such as diseases that affect only crazy ants. UT is also borrowing from its long-running study of fire ants and phorid flies. These flies inject their eggs into ants, and, in a gruesome turn, the larvae devour the ants alive from the inside before emerging from their carcasses. Introducing one exotic species to control another is fraught with its own peril, and biologists keen to avoid collateral damage in the ecosystem. Therefore much of their research consists of looking for remedies that are as narrowly tailored as possible to the problem species.
The clock is ticking. “We think it’s important to get on the problem rapidly,” says Gilbert, “and we were really ahead of everyone doing that because we had the fire ant lab. In many ways, this has a bigger impact than the fire ant to local citizens. We don’t know what it’s going to do if we just let it totally out of the box,” he says of the looming crazy ant problem, “but we’re not wanting to find out.”
LeBrun says the overall goal is to achieve “sustainable control.” “Sustainable control simply means reducing their densities below the point where they are a problem. So if we succeed, crazy ants will still be around, but nobody will care.”