Dave Barry on Fire Ants

October 5th, 2009

fireant1Fire ants, nasty little critters that first arrived in the U.S. in 1918 at an Alabama port aboard a cargo ship from South America, are now found in many areas of the south and southwest.  (I wonder if Hugo Chavez had anything to do with this…or maybe his grandpa?)

Anyone who’s had a close encounter with a fire ant knows how nasty they can be.  Numerous bites can kill small animals, and they can be quite dangerous for humans who are particularly sensitive.

The good news is that scientists in Texas, Florida, and else where are working on ways to kill fire ants, particularly by attacking them in a pretty vicious way with parasitic phorid flies. 

Here’s part of a humorous take from a classic 2003 Dave Barry column:

Almost the first thing that happened to me when I moved to South Florida was that I got attacked by a fire ant. This was my own stupid fault: I sat on my lawn.

I thought this was safe because I had come from Pennsylvania, where lawns are harmless ecosystems consisting of 93 percent crabgrass (my lawn was, anyway); 6 percent real grass; and 1 percent cute little critters such as worms, ladybugs and industrious worker ants who scurry around carrying objects that are 800 times their own weight. (They don’t USE these objects; they just carry them around. That’s how industrious they are.)

Your South Florida lawn, on the other hand, is a seething mass of predatory carnivorous organisms, including land crabs, alligators, snakes ranging in thickness from “knitting needle” to “thigh of Anna Nicole Smith,” lizards the size of small dogs, and giant hairy spiders that appear to have recently eaten small dogs, and are now wearing their pelts as trophies.

But the scariest South Florida lawn-dweller is the fire ant, a quarter-inch-long insect that can easily defeat a full-grown human in hand-to-hand combat. That’s what happened to me. I sat on my lawn, put my hands down and YOW a fire ant – let’s call him Arnie – injected me with his Special Recipe fire-ant venom, and then watched, with a merry twinkle in each of his 5,684 eyes, as I leaped up and danced wildly around, brushing uselessly at my hand, which felt as though I had stuck it into a toaster-oven set on “pizza.” I’m sure the other ants had a hearty laugh when Arnie got back to the colony and communicated this story by releasing humor pheromones (“Then this MORON puts his HAND down! Yes! On the LAWN! Ha ha! Must be from Pennsylvania.”)

That happened 17 years ago, and my hand just recently finished healing. So I am not a fan of fire ants. This is why I was excited when I read a story by Jennifer Maloney in the Miami Herald about a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, right in my neighborhood, to control fire ants by releasing a wondrous little creature called the decapitating phorid fly. This is an amazing fly that kills fire ants via a method that, if insects wrote horror novels, would have been dreamed up by the fire-ant Stephen King.

What happens is, the female phorid fly swoops in on a fire ant and, in less than a tenth of a second, injects an egg into the ant’s midsection. When the egg hatches, the maggot crawls up inside the ant, and – here is the good part – eats the entire contents of the ant’s head. This poses a serious medical problem for the ant, which, after walking around for a couple of weeks with its insides being eaten, has its head actually fall off. At that point it becomes a contestant on The Bachelorette.

No, seriously, at that point the ant is deceased. Meanwhile, inside the detached head, the maggot turns into a fly, and, when it’s ready, crawls out and goes looking for more ants. …

Let’s all cheer for the phorid flies — and just hope that the law of unintended consequences doesn’t result in giant mutant phorid flies laying eggs in our big toes 20 years from now….

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7 Responses to “Dave Barry on Fire Ants”

  1. Alan |

    I would much rather have fire ants than giant “mutant phorid flies laying eggs in our big toes” or any other flies. This means that for every murdered ant, a fly will be born. NO THANKS. Flies are disgusting pests. Yes I have been “attacked” by fireants many times, and it sucks, but I do not want to sit outside and be swarmed by flies constantly.

  2. doris |

    This reminds me of when I ordered a special kind of flies to eat the larvae of worms that horses get. Well,we were not lacking in flies for along time,worms still there,too.I think I got regular flies,sweet.

  3. Brian Bagent |

    To most of us, the fire ants are a natural part of the landscape. They need to be gotten rid of, because they are not, in fact, a natural part of our landscape.

    They do benefit us in two respects: in sugarcane fields, they eat cane borers; and in areas prone to having ticks, they do a respectable job of keeping the tick populations in check.

    The only real danger of these phorid flies that I see is that if they should run out of or low on fire ants, they may turn their attentions to other insects in the phylological order that ants are in, insects that we probably wouldn’t want to live without (honey bees, for one example). I suspect that these flies will probably make tasty morsels for bats, birds, and probably a great many other insects.

    These phorids are about the size of a mosquito and have a similar appearance as well. Most niche predators (which is what these flies are) generally die off when their prey have all gone.

  4. doris |

    I thought you said they would eat other beneficial insects? Which is it,eat or die off? I seriously doubt that all the fireants would ever be eaten. Their nests cover miles and miles,thats why they move over a few feet when you poison them.

  5. doris |

    Just in case you didn’t know, I had 2 ducks at my pond,that were killed and devoured by fireants,they are a nuissance and deadly to smaller animals and wildlife. The ducks were sitting on eggs and would not leave,even for fireants,too bad all human mothers aren’t that good.

  6. Brian Bagent |

    Doris, the point is we don’t know for certain. A preponderance of the evidence suggests that they will reduce much the way any predatory population reduces when their prey gets scarce. But (and there’s always a but) sometimes, predators find other prey.

    Fire ants, for most people, are pestilential. Most people consider yellow jackets, bumble bees, wasps, and hornets to be pests as well, though they are actually beneficial (though when I find them nesting on the house or in the barn, they get a quick dose of insecticide). That’s true for most insect species, though difficult to see if you are a gardener.

  7. doris |

    Wasps eat ants,but I kill them,too. Don’t mess with Mother Nature.

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