'Crazy hairy ants' threaten industrial plants, homes in U.S. South

If you thought fire ants were bad, just wait until you learn about "crazy hairy ants."

“Crazy hairy ants” are on the move in Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The ants are described as “crazy,” because of the speed at which they randomly scatter, super-fast as compared to other ant species. They are referred to as “hairy,” because of a fuzz that coats their abdomen, not apparent to the naked eye.

The ants have been reported to have invaded homes and industrial areas in both urban and rural settings. They can travel in common items, such as plants, hay or cargo containers and, the next thing you know, they are invading a new landscape. They are a threat to industrial plants, because the death of one ant can cause a chemical cue for the rest of the colony to attack.

"The other ants rush in,” Roger Gold, an entomology professor at Texas A&M, told CBS News. “Before long, you have a ball of ants.”

Exterminator Tom Rasberry found the first of the ants in Texas, in the Houston area, in 2002. "We're kind of going for overkill on that particular site because so much is at stake," he told CBS News, referring to a computer system controlling pipeline valves. The system shorted out, he said, twice in approximately 35 days. "If that shuts down, they could literally shut down an entire chemical plant that costs millions of dollars."

Treatment can be expensive, and can exceed thousands of dollars per year in some cases. However, Rasberry said he had never witnessed anyone being forced from their homes, even though he has treated approximately 1,000 homes for the ants in the last month.

Unlike some species, these ants do not dig anthills. They prefer living in sheltered, moist spots. And, they eat almost anything, plant or animal.

It is likely that the ants are native to South America, according to Joe MacGown, who curates the ant, mosquito and scarab collections at the Mississippi State Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University. However, Jeff Keularts, an extension associate professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, said that the ants were noted in the late 19th century in the Caribbean, which yielded the nickname “Caribbean crazy ants.”

Wherever they originated, they are now marching and riding through the Southeast. MacGown indicated to CBS News that Florida has recorded the presence of the ants in at least 20 counties; Texas has them in at least 18; two in Mississippi; and they have been spotted in at least one Louisiana parish.

Texas has approved two chemicals, temporarily, that may help eradicate the crazy, hairy ants, while the other states are continuing to consider options. MacGown said that, although the ants do kill another species of pests, fire ants, he hopes that the ants are eradicated in Louisiana and Mississippi before they are out of control

"I prefer fire ants to these," MacGown told CBS News. "I can avoid a fire ant colony."

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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