Sometimes it’s the little things that count.
Ants for instance: One or two hardly constitutes an emergency, but hundreds, thousands or even millions of the tiny creatures in one place can cause big problems.
The Rio Grande Valley is no stranger to ants, including many invasive species. Maybe that doesn’t sound so great, but it may be the reason the Valley has so far avoided being overrun by a newer, incredibly disruptive ant pest from South America that’s made a name for itself further up the Gulf coast.
In 2002, a Houston exterminator named Tom Rasberry ran across a new species of invasive ant in an industrial area in the suburb of Pasadena. He christened it the “Rasberry crazy ant,” named obviously for himself but also for its habit of running around like crazy for no apparent reason.
The Raspberry crazy ant, which entomologists have since given the common name “tawny crazy ant” (scientific name: Nylanderia fulva), has proven to be a real troublemaker in areas of heavy infestation, crippling electrical equipment, killing small livestock and making it nearly impossible for homeowners to enjoy their yards.
Tawny crazy ants reproduce at lightning speed and tend to die in epic numbers in walls and crawlspaces, requiring shoveling to get rid of the millions of tiny corpses that pile up.
In the most extreme cases, tawny crazy ants drive out every other type of ant, invasive or otherwise, including the red imported fire ant. The fire ant, also a South American native, which invaded South Texas decades ago, seems like the ideal neighbor in comparison.
In fact, people who’ve experienced both are reported to prefer the fire ant.
Worse yet, tawny crazy ants aren’t affected by common, over-the-counter pesticides, making them difficult to get rid of.
In 2010, Raul Villanueva, an entomologist with Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Weslaco, confirmed the tawny crazy ant in the Lower Rio Grande Valley after witnessing a major infestation at a home in Weslaco.
Last fall, reports began saturating the national media that tawny crazy ants had infiltrated the Gulf coast from Houston all the way down to Brownsville. Clearly, it was time to panic — or was it?
A tawny crazy ant infestation is serious business, no doubt, but not all areas where the ant has been confirmed have been affected equally. The Valley seems to be one of those areas — for now at any rate.
In a recent interview, Villanueva said that other than the Weslaco infestation, he’s heard of no other major infestations. He speculates that the sheer number of ant species in the Valley, native and invasive alike, has prevented the tawny crazy ant from spreading.
“In this area we have abundant ants,” Villanueva said. “That’s important probably. I believe it balances things out.”
Argentine ants, for instance, have been a problem in the Valley for years, according to Arnold Esquivel, an exterminator with Lucio’s Termite & Pest Control in Brownsville.
Most ant calls lately have been for Argentine ants and a relative newcomer, ghost ants, he said. Brownsville still has fire ants, with major colonies in the fields off Military Highway west of town particularly, though he suspects the Argentine ants may be pushing them out.
“When I go to homes where there used to be fire ants, there’s more Argentine ants,” Esquivel said.
Then there’s the longhorn crazy ant, which had settled in South Texas long before its tawny cousin started getting so much press. Plus, pharaoh ants, once a big problem in the Valley especially in RV parks, have largely been displaced, he said.
“The ghost ant is taking its place,” Esquivel said. “It’s always in flux.”
While tawny crazy ants have earned a reputation for ruining electrical equipment, they’re not the only species drawn to electricity. In Brownsville, Esquivel said he’s only seen fire ants move into circuit boards, air conditioners and such.
The upshot is that tawny crazy ants are here, they just don’t seem to be getting much traction.
Robert Puckett, an associate research scientist with the Texas A&M Center for Urban & Structural Entomology in College Station, said the Valley is home to “a series of very aggressive, efficient, invasive ant species.”
“You’ve found yourself at sort of the epicenter of a battle royale between invasive ant species,” he said. “I don’t personally know of another situation where Argentine ant and tawny crazy ant populations are overlapping.”
Puckett said it may be the case that the wide variety of ant species in the Valley has kept the tawny crazy ant from spreading as much as it has in places where its only enemy is the fire ant.
“It becomes a competition story,” he said. “They’re competing for the resource budget that’s available to them. If they can command a greater share than other species, then they will persist.”
It’s probably not so much a case of ant-world equilibrium as it is that somebody’s winning, it’s just taking a while.
“It’s happening slowly enough that it’s difficult to see it,” he said.
Valley residents should keep their fingers crossed that tawny crazy ants don’t one day manage to eliminate the competition. Media accounts of the tawny invaders can seem overblown — unless you’ve seen them first hand, Puckett said.
“It sounds like hyperbole until you find yourself in a bad infestation,” he said. “Then it registers.”
Puckett noted that the range of tawny crazy ants seems to be expanding very quickly in Texas, thanks to humans transporting them everywhere, as compared to other invasive ants state entomologists have had to deal with. They’re in at least 27 Texas counties now and probably more, he said.
Puckett insisted he’d take fire ants over tawny crazy ants any day. The Valley can keep its Argentine ants too, Puckett added. They haven’t made it to Brazos County yet and he hopes they never do.
Villanueva said common-sense practices — such as sealing cracks in walls and floors and under doors, and storing potential food sources so ants can’t get to them — can help reduce the chances of an infestation.
If you are confronted with an infestation, particularly from a hard-to-purge species, chances are you’ll be forced to call a professional. Professional exterminators can identify the specific ant and thus what types chemicals are effective.
“Ants are very picky,” Esquivel said. “You’ve got to know exactly what they eat. Different species eat different types of baits.”
At the same time, Villanueva said, just because it’s an ant doesn’t mean it’s bad, as long as it’s not invading the home. Some species, such as the native red harvester ant, are considered beneficial, he said. Even fire ants are relatively “polite,” usually sticking to their mounds as opposed to moving into human habitation.
Even Esquivel, who makes his living doing battle with various ant species, expresses something close to admiration for them.
“They’re astonishing little creatures,” he said. “Most of them carry anywhere from 10 to 20 times their weight.”