New Ant Species Arrives With a Taste for Electronics, Scientists Say

Ants are on the march with a taste for everything from livestock to electronics.

ByABC News
May 23, 2013, 9:55 PM

June 9, 2013 — -- There's a new player on the continent and it is spreading damage from Texas to Florida in a scary assault that sounds like a really bad movie.

"Crazy" ants on the march have a taste for everything from livestock to electrical equipment. They are so obnoxious that many residents yearn for the good old days when all they had to fight was red ants that are quickly being wiped out by the crazies.

The tiny insect is called "crazy" because the trail it leaves as it eats its way across the country is so erratic it appears the ants have tipped the bottle too many times.

Scientists know it as Nylanderia fulva, but its commonly accepted name is "tawny crazy ant," formerly known as the raspberry crazy ant.

By whatever name, it's here now, transported from its homeland in Argentina and Brazil, probably unwittingly, by humans. It's so small -- less than an eighth of an inch long -- that millions can hide beneath a rock, or inside a computer or transformer.

The newcomer was first sighted near Houston in 2002, but they have since moved on to 21 counties in Texas, 20 counties in Florida, and a few sites in Mississippi and Louisiana, all with human assistance.

It doesn't sting, but it has an annoying bite that can scare wildlife away -- and, unlike its more famous cousin, the red ant, it is highly invasive, infesting homes, recreational vehicles, transformers and any laptop or smart phone left in its path.

Crazy ants, according to researcher Ed LeBrun of the University of Texas, Austin, just simply aren't very polite. LeBrun is co-author of a study on crazy ants published in the journal Biological Invasions.

LeBrun and his colleagues have found that the omnivorous ants attack and kill other species and monopolize food resources so efficiently that they jeopardize the entire ecosystem.

They are near the bottom of the food chain, but they could have a devastating effect on plants and animals ranging from cattle to songbirds.

According to researchers at Texas A&M, the chemicals that kill red ants aren't effective on crazy ants, so if you find an infestation in your home, call a pro.

Both reds and crazies and a few other species share a peculiar attraction to electrical wiring and components, and no one is sure why. The damages can be extreme. In one year alone, researchers documented $146.5 million in damages to electrical equipment just in Texas.

How they cause that damage also sounds like a really bad movie. One ant finds its way into a transformer and grazes against a hot wire. It gets electrocuted, and immediately "waves its abdomen in the air (called gaster flagging) to release its own brand of perfume, which lures many more ants to the scene.

If they touch their fallen comrade, or a hot switch, they too will be electrocuted, sending more pheromones into the air and calling even more ants to their location.

Pretty soon, there are so many dead ants that the electric switches can't close, or the insulation is fried and the system short circuits.

Ants have been found to remove enough soil from beneath a slab to cause the slab to tilt, and the damage doesn't end there. They can carry the soil to the warm interior of a transformer, where it collects moisture and eventually shuts down the electronics.

Another species, called acrobat ants, infiltrated an air conditioner in Austin, Texas, causing it to malfunction and costing the homeowner $196.54.