University researchers find crazy ants resist fire ant venom

Nicole Bueno

A new study by University researchers finds that “crazy ants” have the ability to resist fire ant venom, as reports of their presence in Austin emerge.

First discovered in 2002, Nylanderia fulva, dubbed the “tawny crazy ant” because of the haphazard patterns of its trails, is traditionally found in northern Argentina and southern Brazil. Lately, these ants have been found in high densities in Florida and Texas and have begun causing problems.

Crazy ants can neutralize fire ant venom by detoxifying themselves using their own secretions in an elaborate fashion, University researcher Edward Lebrun said.

“Not being able to tell when I see a fire ant or a crazy ant would be terrible,” biology senior Bristol Galbraith said. “They could both do damage in entirely different ways.” 

Although crazy ants don’t bite, according to Lebrun they could reduce the variety and abundance of both plants and arthropods by dominating the food supply of competitive herbivores.

“Their population growth rates are high; they reproduce and grow quickly. Why they’re able to achieve such growth rates is a topic of investigation we’re trying to figure out,” Lebrun said.

Lebrun and his Invasive Species Research Group at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory are investigating the overall impact on the ecosystem and agriculture.

Russell Shoffner, branch manager of Bulwark Pest Control, said not much was known about crazy ants until this research. Although according to Lebrun, the team has already received three reports of crazy ants within the city of Austin, and five in Travis County.

“We’ve had some calls about these crazy ants lately, and we’re seeing more of them coming in,” Shoffner said.

The crazy ants like to nest in cavities, which include electronic switchboxes. When a hot wire electrocutes them, the ants release pheromones, attracting more of their species to the scene. The subsequent buildup blocks circuit closures and causes damage to electronics that can add up quickly for the Austin homeowner.

Despite the ability of crazy ants, their colonies are generally slow-moving and typically facilitated by human movement, Lebrun said. Potted plants and food containers are prime nests for these insects, and the monitoring of these and other cavities should help reduce their spread.

Lebrun said he and his team of researchers will continue to study the behavior and potential impact of the species in the future.