Friday Report: Fire ants are a truth stranger than fiction
September 13, 2013
Forget that Riddick makes up the first two syllables of the word ‘ridiculous’ and you’ll love Vin Diesel’s new movie.
Lots of violence, bring the kids, because it stresses eternal truths like if a pony-sized, six-legged thingy with slime-dripping mandibles and double rows of shark teeth ever comes after you, it’s okay to douse them with flammables and casually flip a flaming Zippo lighter at them.
Vin Diesel is working to replace Sigourney Weaver as spokesperson against unstoppable, snot-lathered aliens.
But once again we’re faced with a truth stranger than fiction as global warming puts such slimy creatures right at our feet, literally.
Fire ants are eighth-inch long alien terrors named Solinopsis Invicta. They landed in Mobile Alabama in 1930, after stowing aboard cargo ships from Brazil. Invicta translates as “unconquerable” and so far, the fire ant is hardly slowing down.
Fire ants don’t eat solid food. Everything foraged is fed to larvae that break it into a milky slime that feeds the entire nest. Vibrations from the footfall of even a tiny rodent will send hoards of warrior ants teeming from the nest to swarm all over the intruder. None of them sting until they are massed in huge numbers. When they are literally shoulder to shoulder, a few begin plunging their fiery venom into the victim, whose guaranteed abrupt reaction triggers all of them to begin stinging repeatedly. Despite their tiny size, fire ants inflict astonishing pain and can sting numerous times without diminishing its venom. They kill deer and dogs and anything that stands still long enough to get covered and victims report it feels like being on fire. Fire ants have rid vast areas of the south and the southwest of quail, frogs, several species of waterfowl, reptiles, domestic animals and even livestock, killing them but worse, devastating the grasses and foliage they live on. In Texas alone, fire ants result in more than 10,000 emergency and hospital visits annually.
They are mutating. Early fire ant studies noted that one nest had one queen and when she died, the nest died. About 15 years ago, someone noticed that wasn’t true anymore. Nests were suddenly courting 200-300 queens each and colonies deprived of all of their queens would set up raiding parties to capture a queen from a nearby nest.
At some point in a queen’s life, she sprouts wings, breeding some hapless male 800 feet in the air. After these aerial antics, the male dies and the queen flies as much as thirty miles away, looking for her starter castle. Her kingdom secured, she begins laying 1,500 eggs per day for the next seven years.
At any threat to the nest, worker ants begin frantically carrying queens and larvae to safety four feet below ground, safe from rain, hurricanes and yes, even flammables. Pesticides only make it worse by wiping out the native ants that helped keep the fire ant at bay.
Fire ants build tunnels that extend 100 feet from the mound and have collapsed highways in North Carolina. Their presence was recently confirmed in California. Viruses, fungi, natural predators, and pheromone manipulation offer some hope as eventual control methods, but a safe, effective control will produce a great deal of money, so research groups don’t talk to each other.
Scientists are starting to get a better grip on the real effects of global warming and a 50-year study shows that insects are moving away from the equator at a rate of nearly 2 miles per year and gaining 36 feet in altitude every decade.
While fire ants were busy eating all the ground cover in the south, the pine beetle was eating all the trees in Colorado in an inexorable march to the Canadian forests. Once there, that will give them a broad avenue to the commercial forests of the American east and southeast, a route previously blocked by the Great Plains.
It’s reassuring to know that Riddick’s still out there.