Of the nonnative animals crawling, buzzing and slithering across the American South, very few are officially designated “crazy.”
The crazy ant is an exception. When a Texas exterminator, Tom Rasberry, spotted ants moving in an erratic swarm in 2002, the strange insects took his name: Rasberry crazy ants. A decade later, after biologists completed the species’ taxonomic identification, they renamed the ant in Latin Nylanderia fulva. In English, they dropped the Rasberry but kept the crazy, and now the tawny crazy ant marches across Texas.
This ant march is slow, just some roughly 650 feet annually – about twice the length of a soccer field per year. But it seems inexorable. Texas A&M University researchers found crazy ants in 23 counties in Texas, reported the Austin American-Statesman on Sunday.
Although the insects are so named for their swarming maneuvers, the term is equally apt for the damage they inflict on the human psyche. For reasons not fully understood, the ants are found in large numbers near electrical equipment and wall sockets. Cellphones and television sets have succumbed to the ant swarms, and the insects damaged electronics in a Houston-area industrial park.
“It comes into houses and drives people crazy, maybe suppressing housing values,” Colorado State University entomologist Whitney Cranshaw told The Washington Post in 2009.
(In 2013, the New York Times magazine profiled a Texas man so plagued by the ants he was about to gun down an outdoor colony with his AR-15. He refrained, the Times reported, after his wife started to laugh.)
The ants are capable of living in immense colonies, up to 100 times denser than all other ants in an infested habitat. During a recent field study, one ant researcher collected more than 180,000 ants simply by leaving plastic tubes in an infested location overnight, the Statesman reported. The researcher did not need to use bait.
Like the infamous fire ant, the crazy ant is a South American native that made its way to the Lone Star state. The animals do not coexist peacefully. The crazy ant – despite its less painful venom – has a chemical upper hand, scientists discovered in 2014. The crazy ants secrete a substance that neutralizes the fire ant acid, and are thus able to overwhelm the enemy ants. A few experts, such as University of Texas at Austin’s Ed LeBrun, worry that ecosystems already altered by the fire ant may be unprepared to keep the crazy ant in check.
Left to their own six legs the insects cannot travel far, but LeBrun noted in a 2013 statement that the animals could stow away in RVs or be shipped through the mail in garden products. “But the flip side of that is that if people living in or visiting invaded areas are careful and check for the crazy ants when moving or going on longer trips,” he said, “they could have a huge impact on the spread.”
Entomologists have identified the ant in every Gulf state. The ant’s eastward march may take it next to South Carolina. “The predictive models show that the tawny crazy ant could become established in South Carolina in 2016, especially along the coastal counties from Jasper up to Georgetown,” Clemson University entomologist Eric Benson said in a statement in July.
In 2013, the University of Texas at Austin announced a $2.7 million initiative to find biological ways to keep invasive insects under control. One such method is the release of predators. South American phorid flies, which lay their eggs on fire ants so the fly maggots can eat their hosts from the inside out, have shown promise curbing fire ant populations.