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Other voices: Crazy ants marching through Texas

Fresh from the file headed “No matter how bad things may seem, they can always get worse” comes a new and ominous threat: Crazy ants.

Sounds kinda cute, right? Guess again: Entymologists warn (and not much seizes our attention like the sobering words “entymologists warn”) that crazy ants are “the new fire ant.” They may be even worse.

“When you talk to people who live in the invaded areas,” University of Texas biologist Ed LeBrun, who is studying the insect, told the Austin American-Statesman, “they tell you they want their fire ants back.”

So what are crazy ants? Specifically, they’re Nylanderia fulva, also the tawny crazy ant, believed to have originated in South America. They were first identified in Texas near Houston, presumably having arrived as stowaways aboard cargo ships.

As of this month, the pests were reported to be in 23 Texas counties, spreading westward from the Gulf Coast into Central Texas and south to the Rio Grande Valley. Some researchers believe they may top such universally loathed species as feral hogs and zebra mussels as destructive invaders.

They’re tiny, about one-eighth of an inch long. Unlike fire ants, they have no stingers, and their bites cause only a moment’s discomfort. But their sheer numbers and astonishing density pose an infestational nightmare. Swarms of crazy ants can smother chickens, trigger blackouts by short-circuiting electrical boxes, suck grasslands dry, destroy mechanical equipment.

Called “crazy” because of their erratic foraging patterns, they’re discouragingly hardy. Try to kill one nest, and the ants send out signals — a kind of radio call for reinforcements — that bring more of them in even greater numbers. They defeat their arch-enemy, the fire ant, by smearing their hairy little bug bodies with a coating of self-generated slime that renders fire ant venom harmless.

The good news is that, left to their own devices, they spread slowly. The bad news is that they’re extremely accomplished hitchhikers. It’s only a matter of time, researchers predict, until they spread across our state as stowaways in hay bales, potted plants, lumber shipments or even electronic devices.

Because they are a subtropical species, it’s unlikely they can survive much farther north than Oklahoma. (And that helps us here in North Texas how?)

Researchers at Texas A&M University and at the University of Texas’ Brackenridge Field Laboratory say we should fasten our hopes on some of the remarkably grisly remedies offered by nature itself.

Their studies focus on two avenues: A killer fungus that attacks the ant’s nervous system, and a tiny fly that lays eggs in the ant’s head, after which the hatchling larva feasts on the ant brain before emerging.

Gory, yes, but we as Texans know how to hang tough. We’ve gone mano a mano with zebra mussels, killer hogs, giant water rats and oversized invasive carp that can leap 10 feet out of the water and knock you senseless with their huge bony heads.

What’s a few trillion invading ants? We’ll endure. Besides, do we really have a choice?

— The Dallas Morning News