Is your television unexpectedly on the fritz? Did your laptop suddenly stop working? If you live in the Southern United States, it could just be you’ve been paid a visit by the pesticide-resistant Rasberry or tawny “crazy” ant.
The ant is known to scientists as Nylanderia fulva or, to give it its common names, the Rasberry or tawny crazy ant (depending on which side of the taxonomy debate you land, for clarity we’ll use both names interchangeably even though “tawny” is now the designated common name).
It was first flagged on U.S. soil in Houston, Texas in 2002 by Associate Certified Entomologist and owner of Rasberry’s Pest Professionals, Tom Rasberry.
Like so many of its brethren, the tawny ant has a particular love for electrical goods, and that’s partly why it is making headlines today.
The precise reason for its electrical fetish isn’t yet known. Ants may simply find the cases hiding the internals of electrical devices to be good nesting spots or, on the more adventurous side of scientific thought, the ants may sense the magnetic field surrounding wires that house an electric current and find it scintillating.
Regardless, the fact is they do seek out electrical equipment and this comes with a problem. The ants will chew through insulation around wires and cause short circuits.
Moreover, when they are electrocuted, the tawny crazy ant displays “gaster flagging,” a remarkable behavior where they roll over, wave their abdomen in the air and release eau de ant.
Other ants, getting a sniff of this warning whiff, then descend upon the scene. More chewing ensues and mechanical devices subsequently fail, often due to overheating because of the swelling ant numbers.
ABC notes that researchers documented $146.5 million-worth of damages to electrical equipment caused by the Rasberry ants in Texas in one year alone.
As noted previously, this species is not native to the U.S. and that brings its own set of problems.
The Rasberry ant originates not from the Caribbean like its other “crazy” cousin, but Brazil and Argentina. Moreover, the tawny ants don’t fall for the usual ant baits, and have shown a resilience to over the counter insecticides. This led the Environmental Protection Agency to grant in 2008 a temporary approval of the broad spectrum insecticide fipronil. While perhaps arguably necessary, fipronil is not something to be used lightly.
The slow-acting insecticide is highly toxic not just to ants and termites, but bees (it has been linked to colony collapse disorder), rabbits, and certain lizards and birds. That it is undesirable to continue use of the insecticide to try to tame tawny ant numbers barely needs to be said.
Despite this action, though, the ants proved resilient and in fact they now appear to have established colonies in all of the Gulf Coast states.
In typical form for this aggressive species, said colonies can be up to 100 times larger than those of the United States’ more common species and, yes, it may be time to worry for the future of ant biodiversity.
Rasberry ants have shown they are quite capable of muscling out the more sedate non-native fire ants.
The tawny ants’ resistance to ant baits, their opportunistic and therein adaptable nesting habits, and the fact that extermination is difficult because the tawny ant has an extended monarchy (it has more than one queen so one is always ready to take up the slack of her sister meeting an untimely end), all mean it exhibits traits making it a formidable invasive species.
In fact, research has shown that the Rasberry ant is capable of displacing the fire ant completely in areas where the fire ant had previously established a strong presence. The tawny ant also has one other advantage in this hostile takeover: it has an accomplice.
Under their own power, Rasberry ants are quite incapable of traveling great distances, but they have friends in the average human traveler. Just as they arrived on U.S. shores via human transportation, the ants are now working their way across the U.S. by the same means. As such, researchers are urging those going to, between and from southern states to be vigilant.
In particular, they are asking travelers to check their luggage, any small hollow items and their vehicles carefully for signs of ant infestation because, they say, the ant’s march across America can’t be allowed to continue unchecked or we risk having to take action like using insecticides that could further damage the nation’s wildlife.