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Them 

California takes on the Fire Ant

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
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Sometime during the early 1990s, a queen Solenopsis invicta with a strong case of wanderlust hopped onto a sod truck heading through the Great American Desert toward Los Angeles. The trip was long, hot and monotonous. When she finally arrived, the ant, thinking she had wound up somewhere close to heaven, stretched her incandescent wings and tore them off under the glorious sun. Then she dug about a foot deep into the soil and started having babies.

Or so goes one of the more romantic theories. No one knows for sure how Solenopsis invicta, more commonly known as the ”red imported fire ant,“ slipped into California, the most pest-managed state in the nation. But it is here now, in droves. Golf courses and back yards from Palm Springs to Orange County are infested. Gradually, the City of Angels itself has been surrounded. And so, Angeleno, if you‘re not yet familiar with the fire ant, or the aura of anxiety that surrounds it, you will be soon.

Laying claim to American soil is what the fire ant does best. Seventy-five years ago, a queen arrived at the port of Mobile, Alabama, somewhere in the cargo or ballast of a freighter from South America. Since then, her descendants have invaded 10 states in the Southeast, a majority of Texas and, now, the Golden State -- hitching rides in landscape plants, in nursery shipments, in farm and construction equipment, or in the bed of a pickup truck. And all the while, we passionately plot ways to destroy them.

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Over the years, we have studied the fire ant in the field and in laboratories, even crushed it into millions of pieces to examine its DNA. We have sprayed it with mysterious poisons from the tails of World War II fighter planes, attempted to contain it by building a nationwide infrastructure of monitoring agencies, and dumped millions of gallons of carcinogens into cracks in the earth. Texas alone spends more than $1 billion each year in its fight against the invader. The state Agricultural Extension Service sponsors block parties where neighborhoods are encouraged to lay out insecticidal bait, and in 1998, Governor George W. Bush declared September 14 to 20 ”Fire Ant Awareness Week.“

Awareness notwithstanding, the fire ant, scurrying through dark crevices beneath our feet, has proven a crafty and elusive adversary. Indeed, Harvard entomologist Edward Wilson once called the war against fire ants ”the Vietnam of the insect world.“ And like that earlier ill-fated campaign, the most comprehensive, aggressive and costly conflict ever between man and bug has spawned thousands of jobs and generated billions of dollars in revenue. If the fire ant truly were to disappear, so would the political maneuvering and economic opportunities -- to say nothing of the entertaining folklore -- that have emerged in response to it over the past five decades.

With the discovery of Solenopsis invicta, the ”invincible ant,“ in California almost two years ago, the saga enters a new chapter. Experts predict that if the insect establishes a beachhead in the southern part of the state, it will eventually infest the entire West Coast. The California Department of Food and Agriculture, however, says it will successfully eradicate the fire ant from our soil -- a claim that hasn’t been made by any state in more than 20 years. Is this attempt to eradicate a whole species of insect feasible? Is it justified? And what is it, exactly, that the fire ant has done to deserve so much enmity?

Well, to begin with, it stings.

Those who have experienced the fiery sting of Solenopsis invicta -- female ants come equipped with a venomous tail barb, although only the wingless female workers actually sting -- surely have reason to gripe. In 1990, for example, a woman in Florida fell into a coma and eventually died after being stung on the middle toe of her left foot while pulling weeds. Four years later, a 77-year-old Houston woman recuperating from abdominal surgery was attacked by fire ants in a hospital bed. Last year, in a Mississippi nursing home, Nell Rein died after being stung hundreds of times. In 1992, 22-year-old Troy Dean Carswell of Augusta, Georgia, was charged with murder after a man he was fighting fell into a fire-ant nest and died from the ensuing stings. A year later, three people in Texas were sentenced to several years in prison after forcing a 5-year-old boy to stand on a fire-ant mound as punishment.

But these are extreme, isolated scenarios. Less than 1 percent of the human population is allergic to the fire ant‘s venom -- an unlucky group of people who could die from anaphylaxis if they happen to be attacked. Most everyone else suffers a small, red, itchy welt. Over the past 60 years, 32 human deaths have been blamed on the fire ant. Not a small number, but more people have died over the same period from bumblebee stings or spider bites. The fire ant is actually a fairly clumsy predator, taking almost three seconds to position itself for a sting.

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