Entomologists report that the crazy ants, like other ants, seem drawn to electronic devices—car stereos, circuit boxes, machinery. But with crazy ants, so many will stream inside a device that they form a single, squirming mass that completes a circuit and shorts it. Crazy ants have ruined laptops and, according to one exterminator, have temporarily shut down chemical plants. They are most likely climbing into these cavities to investigate possible nesting sites. But David Oi, a research entomologist at the Department of Agriculture, told me that the science-fiction-ish theory that the bugs are attracted to the electricity itself can’t be ruled out.
Crazy ants don’t have a painful bite, but they terrorize people by racing up their feet and around their bodies, coursing everywhere in their impossibly disordered orbits. Some people in Texas have become so frustrated with crazy ants that they’ve considered selling their houses.
Crazy ants decimate native insects. They overtake beehives and destroy the colonies. They may smother baby birds struggling to hatch. In South America, where scientists now believe the ants originated, they have been known to obstruct the nasal cavities of chickens and asphyxiate the birds. They swarm into cows’ eyes.
So far, there is no way to contain them. In the fall, the worker ants are subject to magnificent die-offs, but the queens survive, and a new, often larger crop of crazy ants pours back in the spring. Crazy ants were first discovered in Texas in 2002 by an exterminator. Within five years, they appeared to be spreading through Texas much faster than even the red fire ant, which costs the state roughly $1 billion a year. Crazy ants have also been spotted in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia.
As the ants began to advance, a division of the Department of Agriculture convened a task force. On October 9, 2008, eighteen people, including representatives from state and federal agencies and several academic entomologists, met to assess the problem.
At the time, the American economy was crumbling. Six days earlier, President Bush had approved $700 billion for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. “I don’t think the government had a lot of money to spend on bugs,” says one task force participant. In fact, the conversation hit a Catch-22: The government didn’t want to release money to research or combat the ants until it knew what species it was dealing with. The scientists insisted that they needed funding to figure that out.
Finally, one man spoke up. “I said, ‘You all sound like a bunch of idiots,’” he recalls. He was 52, with a graying, bristly mustache and leathery skin, and on paper at least, he had no business being there. He wasn’t a bureaucrat or a scientist. He’d never even gone to college. But Tom Rasberry was the exterminator who’d discovered the ants—and he’d named them after himself: Rasberry ants.
Tom Rasberry speaks in an unflappable drawl—the same one that airplane pilots use to make mechanical difficulties sound like no big deal. Two years ago, he appeared on The Early Show on CBS and explained that it’s “too late” to stop the crazy Rasberry ants and that “the entire Gulf Coast is going to be inundated.” He added that the ants had been seen at a Houston medical center and that researchers at Texas A&M had shown that the ants can transfer pathogens from room to room. Then he sat there, stone-faced. “Sometimes,” Rasberry said, “I wish I would have never heard of them.”