Sunday, May 18, 2008

Billions of electronic-eating 'crazy rasberry ants' invade Texas

It sounds like the plot of a farfetched science fiction movie. Unfortunately for the residents of Texas, it is very much a reality: billions of tiny reddish-brown ants have arrived onshore from a cargo ship and are hell-bent on eating anything electronic.

Computers, burglar alarm systems, gas and electricity meters, iPods, telephone exchanges – all are considered food by the flea-sized ants, for reasons that have left scientists baffled.

Having ruined pumps at a sewage facility, the ants are now marching towards Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre and William P. Hobby airport, Houston, putting state officials in a panic. “They’re itty-bitty things, and they’re just running everywhere,” said Patsy Morphew, a resident of Pearland, on the Gulf Coast.

She spends hours sweeping them off her patio and scooping them out of her pool by the cupful. “There’s just thousands and thousands of them. If you’ve seen a car racing, that’s how they are. They’re going fast, fast, fast. They’re crazy.”

Crazy is the the right word. The ants are known as “crazy rasberry ants”: crazy because they seem to move in a random scrum as opposed to marching in regimented lines, and rasberry after a pioneering exterminator, Tom Rasberry, who first identified them as a problem.

The ants – also known as paratrenicha species near pubens – have so far spread to five counties in the Houston area. Scientists are not sure from where they originate but they seem to be related to a type of ant from the Caribbean. “At this point it would be nearly impossible to eradicate the ants because they are so widely dispersed,” said Roger Gold, a Texas A&M University entomologist. He added that the only upside to the invasion was that the crazy rasberry ants ate fire ants, which sting humans during the long, hot Texas summers.

Unfortunately, the ants also like to suck the moisture from plants, feed on precious insects such as ladybirds and eat the hatchlings of a small, endangered type of grouse known as the Attwater prairie chicken. They also bite humans – although not with a sting like fire ants.

Perhaps their most remarkable characteristic, however, is that they are attracted to electrical equipment. Pest control specialists say that they are inundated with calls from homes and businesses now that the warm, humid season has begun, with literally billions of the ants wreaking havoc across the state. Worse, the ants refuse to die when sprayed with over-the-counter poison. Even killing the queen of a colony doesn’t do any good, because each colony has multiple queens.

The Texas Department of Agriculture said that it was working with researchers from A&M University and the Environmental Protection Agency to find new ways to stop the ants.

[Via Times Online]

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