By Pat Foster-Turley
July 21, 2022
Thanks to Bill Birdsong, with his eyes and camera often on the Greenway, I’ve got a new scary story for all you North Florida readers. His remarkable photo of a snake that’s face is covered in ants sure caught my attention. The crazy ants are here!
I first heard about these swarming ants from Susan Gallion last year, when these tiny troublemakers were surrounding and entering her home and those of her neighbors, in an area near the Greenway. Pest control companies contacted by neighborhood residents were of little help. And now, after doing some research I have learned why.
Tawny crazy ants, so named for their erratic behavior patterns, are another one of those exotic introduced species that wreak havoc in new places, like ours. Although there is some mystery about the taxonomy and origins, it seems likely that they came from South America, and traveled here as passengers with crops, products, soil, plants, who knows what imports brought them in. But now that they are here they are spreading even faster than the exotic fire ants that came before them.
Unlike fire ants these tiny ants do not sting, but that doesn’t mean they are not a problem. They travel in huge masses of sometimes millions of individuals and can consume much within their path. They have been known to even kill birds by suffocating them, to damage the eyes of livestock, and many other species. They also contribute to crop loss, when they “farm” aphids, a crop sucker, for the sweet substance they produce, and they move these aphids from place to place causing plants to dry out and die.
And that’s not all! For some unknown reason these ants are attracted to electricity, and often accumulate in masses in electrical boxes and equipment, causing these to short circuit and switches to clog. They are tiny and can penetrate even the most securely sealed homes and can cover surfaces, climb all over people, and come back in masses when the first ones are killed. Their nests are often far from these moving masses of ants, and are difficult to locate and they are not attracted to regular ant bait, so they are nearly impossible to get rid of, even by professional pest control services. The only way, it is said, to get rid of them is to treat the entire area where they are found, neighborhoods, the entire Greenway, who knows what this would entail.
Crazy ants have a known impact on wildlife. Not only do they displace native ant species, but they harm ground nesting birds and other land-dwelling organisms and annoy many other species that often relocate to be free of them. The banded water snake that Bill photographed has probably already fled the area by now.
In the winter in our area they seem to have died out but now, at least on the Greenway they are back in full force. I asked Bill where to find them and he described one spot, about in the middle of the south part of the Greenway, near a bench that overlooks the channel and a beautiful old oak on the other side. So, one morning I set out to find them myself.
I entered the Greenway by the Residence Inn and walked north. Here and there, I saw some small ants, but nothing too alarming. But then I got to the designated bench and finally looked at my feet. My shoes and calves were full of ants and more were coming! Totally annoying. The day was starting to warm up and so were the ants. All the way back whenever I stopped anywhere these tiny ants hitched a ride on my shoes and ventured further up my body until I could shake them off.
Back at home I Googled tawny crazy ants and came up with plenty more scare stories that you can find for yourself with a similar search. But then, to relax before writing a column, I turned to Wordle, that daily online word game that many of us are addicted to. The goal is to guess a five letter word in a few tries, by finding letters that match and eliminating those that don’t. My first guess word was “ANTSY”. Great, the A worked. They I tried ABHOR, and wow, I got both the A and the H. So, what word popped into my head? APHID. And that was the word, in only three tries.
Yes indeed, ants are on my mind. And soon will be on yours too, I hate to say……
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]