Crazy Ants Could Destroy the Entire Gulf Coast

They’re coming by the billions—strange, creepy creatures that appear to be impossible to kill. They started in Texas, but they don’t intend to stay there.

By Jon Mooallem from New York Times
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine May 2014

man in truck

Bill McCullough

Rasberry first spotted the crazy ants while on a job at a chemical plant in the Houston suburb of Pasadena in 2002. Outside the office, he saw a few hundred ants traveling in erratic swirls. “I just sprayed ’em with my can—no big deal,” he remembered. The following summer, he was called back to the same spot. “There were 
literally billions of them,” he said.

The ants quickly sprouted in surrounding areas, most likely transported in landscaping and soil, building materials, or cars. Rasberry called state and federal agencies, trying to communicate his alarm. But the government didn’t respond as quickly or determinedly as he expected.

The breadth of America’s battle against invasive species can be hard to fathom, involving 13 federal agencies and departments, including not only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service but also the Treasury Department. Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel and his colleagues have estimated that invasive species cost the nation $120 billion a year. In 1999, the National Invasive Species Council had to be created to coordinate all these agencies’ efforts. Says the council’s assistant director, Chris Dionigi, “Sometimes things can fall through the cracks.”

Rasberry crazy ants seem to have come pouring through one of those cracks. By appearing first in suburban neighborhoods and not, say, national forests or wildlife refuges or farmland, they colonized the territory between various agencies’ jurisdictions. The government’s system is reactive, not proactive, and so only recently has the species surged into regulatory view. The Department of Agriculture still doesn’t consider the ants a “pest of agricultural significance.” Plus, there was a bigger problem: Even when the government did look straight at the ant, it didn’t know what it was looking at.

Tom Rasberry collected samples of the ant at the Pasadena chemical plant in 2003 and sent them off to Texas A&M to be identified. But figuring out what species the ants were, and where they came from, quickly became vexing. Academics from other institutions swarmed in to debate, for example, the significance of four tiny hairs on the ant’s thorax. For years, they hurtled through a series of wrong answers, but the consensus eventually leaned toward a certain invasive ant, called Nylanderia pubens, which has been in Florida since the 1950s.

Rasberry was convinced this couldn’t possibly be the same ant. His ant was ripping through Texas like a violent dust storm; their ant had been entrenched in Florida for more than 50 years, barely causing any trouble. Why would the bug suddenly behave so differently? Rasberry began his own investigation, spending thousands of hours out in the field or examining samples with a microscope. “It was an obsession,” his daughter, Mandy Rasberry-Ganucheau, said. As long as there was evidence that the ants were pubens and not something new, the government felt it was reasonable not to act.

State and federal agencies have now financed very limited research, and the Environmental Protection Agency has tweaked its regulations to allow the use of a high-powered pesticide against the ant. The taxonomy question was settled in September 2012, when scientists concluded that the Rasberry crazy ant is not the same ant that was collected in Florida in the 1950s—it’s Nylanderia fulva, a species native to Brazil. Rasberry was vindicated.

Last winter, the federal research entomologist David Oi and the researcher who led the taxonomy study, Dietrich Gotzek, gave fulva a common name. Everyone was already calling it Rasberry crazy ant, but that hardly mattered: Naming a bug after a person is strongly frowned upon. Besides, Oi told me, the name was too confusing: “People thought it was supposed to be the fruit.” He and his colleague rechristened it the Tawny crazy ant, a name almost no one in Texas appears to use—especially not Tom Rasberry, who took Oi’s maneuver as a personal attack. “It may sound arrogant,” Rasberry told me, “but I think they’re irritated that someone without a college degree one-upped all the PhDs.”

Meanwhile, the bugs, whatever they were called, just kept advancing. As Roger Gold, a veteran Texas A&M entomologist, said, “All this work about scientific names and common names has never killed a single ant.”

I saw my first crazy ants in a rural area south of Houston called Iowa Colony, named by a land corporation in the early 1900s as a marketing ploy to sell acreage to Midwesterners. Strom Duke, the man who invited me out, had turned 65 the day before. He wore a yellow T-shirt, a yellow cowboy hat, and gold-framed tinted glasses. His story was typical: One evening, his iron stopped working, then sparks shot from the appliance and a tide of ants came rushing out. Strom’s neighbors had similar stories. The ants had caused $1,600 of electrical damage to one woman’s car; infiltrated one house’s alarm system, causing the alarm to blare; and shut off the water at Strom’s brother Melvin’s house by disabling the pressure switch on his well. As we strode up to Melvin’s place, we could see ants puddled under the doorframe and behind the tires of Melvin’s Camry—thick, tapering drifts of them, two or three feet across. Edward LeBrun, an ecologist at the University of Texas at Austin, believes a single “supercolony” of crazy ants occupies as many as 4,200 acres in Iowa Colony and is spreading 200 meters a year in all directions.

Wherever the Dukes pointed, there were ants: under the door of a microwave oven, crawling out of the electrical outlets, heaped in the flower beds where I mistook them for fresh topsoil. “You don’t feel them crawling up your clothes?” Melvin’s wife, Charlene, asked. She was walking around barefoot and in shorts, and I could see ants trickling across her feet and ankles and legs—spelunking between her toes. Soon ants were spiraling up my sneakers and onto my socks. I tried to shake them off, but nothing disturbed them. Before long, I was sweeping them off my calves. I kept instinctively taking a step back from some distressing concentration of ants, only to realize there was nowhere to go. I got in my car and left.

One afternoon last fall, I met Rasberry for a barbecue lunch. It was the third day of the government shutdown, and he explained that his technician wasn’t able to get into NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they had managed to tamp down a crazy-ant infestation. Rasberry worried that if they were locked out for three or four weeks, the agency was “going to have a mess out there.” He said it without any hint of foreboding, or even much interest. He told me he has cut back his work hours, coming into the office only three days a week and spending the rest of his time at his house in the woods.

Rasberry is convinced that the next, obvious wave of damage from the crazy ants will be ecological: They will decimate ground-dwelling bird species, just as fire ants devastated Texas’s quails, and they’ll usurp nearly every other insect species until it’s all Rasberry crazy ants, everywhere. “You knock nature off balance, and ain’t nobody there to catch her,” he said. Entomologists speculate that crazy ants may eventually run into predators along the Gulf Coast. If that happens, their populations may crunch down to manageable sizes. But, these scientists add, the damage done before that happens could be enormous. On the other hand, maybe this is as dystopian as the ant situation gets, and this summer will be better. We understand so little about these crazy ants; it’s hard to say what’s possible.

Not long ago, Rasberry told me, he got a call from a woman who said, “I know how to fix the ant issue.” He could have been furious—it was 11:38 p.m.—but he invited her to go on. She said her plan was to import anteaters. Rasberry paused, then started troubleshooting, working all the angles, reeling her in. Would we lead them around on leashes? “And how many do you think we’ll need to import?” he asked her. “A million? Two million?” The woman thought it over. “If that’s what it takes,” she said.

Bill McCullough

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