Thursday, May 15, 2008

'Crazy' ants wreaking havoc in Houston-area households

We are being invaded:

You won't be able to hear them.

Don't even try.

But somewhere out there, maybe as near as your backyard, the crazy Rasberry ants are marching. Hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of them are coming in a near-unstoppable zig-zagging insect army intent on making your home, yard and life a living hill.

First spotted in 2002 in Pasadena by Tom Rasberry, the exterminator for whom the rice-grain-sized insects are named, the ants now have spread through much of the greater Houston area. May through September is their peak period — a time when billions of the critters with a reluctance to sting and a habit of chewing up electrical wiring may infest a single acre. Homeowners daily sweep up dust bins of their dead and maimed.

"They're just running wild. You know how racehorses run down the track? They go both ways. They have nowhere to go, just running crazy wild," complained Patsy Morphew of Pearland. "They crawl through the eaves of the house and go into the bathroom. You know what it's like to sit down on the commode with crazy ants running everywhere?"

Morphew said she and her husband, Kenneth, have called exterminators to their home on three occasions. "It seems to help for two or three months," she said, but the ants always return. Each morning the Morphews sweep up cups of the ants from their patio and dredge still more from their pool.

Jason Meyers, a Texas A&M University entomology doctoral candidate who has studied the ants, said no one is certain where they came from. What is known, though, is that their range rapidly is expanding. Two poisons — Termidor and Top Choice — are available to exterminators, but unless a sufficient "buffer zone" is established around an infested property, additional ants simply will crawl over the bodies of their fallen comrades.

Rasberry said he treated a half-acre plot with insecticide, returning months later to find the area covered thickly with two inches of dead ants. Living insects teemed on the top layer of insect corpses.

Meyers said an untreated acre of grassland in the Houston area might contain billions of the insects, which create multi-queen nests in damp areas beneath rocks and debris.

Unlike imported fire ants, which the Rasberry ants tend to displace, the new invading insects rarely bite. An unwitting human lounging in the backyard, though, easily might find hundreds of the insects swarming up his legs.

"For humans, they're mainly an annoyance," Meyers said. The researcher said he's received reports of pet dogs refusing to go into yards infested with the ants. The ants do pose potentially serious problems, though, Meyers said. Ants indirectly can damage plants by establishing a symbiotic relationship with sap-sucking aphids. Ants feed on a sugary aphid excretion called honeydew and, therefore, protect the aphids from predators.

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