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Archive for Sunday, May 4, 2003

Fire ants offer warm welcome to Florida

May 4, 2003

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Almost the first thing that happened to me when I moved to South Florida was that I got attacked by a fire ant. This was my own stupid fault: I sat on my lawn.

I thought this was safe because I had come from Pennsylvania, where lawns are harmless ecosystems consisting of 93 percent crabgrass (my lawn was, anyway); 6 percent real grass; and 1 percent cute little critters such as worms, ladybugs, and industrious worker ants who scurry around carrying objects that are 800 times their own weight. (They don't USE these objects; they just carry them around. That's how industrious they are.)

Your South Florida lawn, on the other hand, is a seething mass of predatory carnivorous organisms, including land crabs, alligators, snakes ranging in thickness from "knitting needle" to "thigh of Anna Nicole Smith," lizards the size of small dogs, and giant hairy spiders that appear to have recently EATEN small dogs, and are now wearing their pelts as trophies.

But the scariest South Florida lawn-dweller is the fire ant, a quarter-inch-long insect that can easily defeat a full-grown human in hand-to-hand combat. That's what happened to me. I sat on my lawn, put my hands down and YOW a fire ant -- let's call him Arnie -- injected me with his Special Recipe fire-ant venom, and then watched, with a merry twinkle in each of his 5,684 eyes, as I leaped up and danced wildly around, brushing uselessly at my hand, which felt as though I had stuck it into a toaster-oven set on "pizza." I'm sure the other ants had a hearty laugh when Arnie got back to the colony and communicated this story by releasing humor pheromones ("Then this MORON puts his HAND down! Yes! On the LAWN! Ha ha! Must be from Pennsylvania.")

That happened 17 years ago, and my hand just recently finished healing. So I am not a fan of fire ants. This is why I was excited when I read a story by Jennifer Maloney in the Miami Herald about a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, right in my neighborhood, to control fire ants by releasing a wondrous little creature called the decapitating phorid fly. This is an amazing fly that kills fire ants via a method that, if insects wrote horror novels, would have been dreamed up by the fire-ant Stephen King.

What happens is, the female phorid fly swoops in on a fire ant and, in less than a 10th of a second, injects an egg into the ant's midsection. When the egg hatches, the maggot crawls up inside the ant, and -- here is the good part -- EATS THE ENTIRE CONTENTS OF THE ANT'S HEAD. This poses a serious medical problem for the ant, which, after walking around for a couple of weeks with its insides being eaten, has its head actually fall off. At that point it becomes a contestant on "The Bachelorette."

No, seriously, at that point the ant is deceased. Meanwhile, inside the detached head, the maggot turns into a fly, and, when it's ready, crawls out and goes looking for more ants.

You can see an amazing video of phorid flies in action at www.cmave.saa.ars.usda.gov/fireant/news1.htm. The video, which has a sound track of wild, jungle-style drum music, shows female flies zipping around fire ants like tiny fighter planes, giving the ants FITS. The video also shows how, when a fly isn't fast enough, it gets turned into Purina Ant Chow.

On a recent Friday I went to watch University of Florida Extension Agent Adrian Hunsberger and Miami-Dade County biologist Ruben Regalado release phorid flies on the grounds of Baptist Hospital in Kendall. To start the procedure, Ruben stuck a shovel into a fire-ant mound and turned over a bunch of dirt. Immediately, fire ants charged out and began scurrying angrily around.

"They're looking for whoever disturbed their mound," said Adrian.

"I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH DISTURBING YOUR MOUND," I shouted at the ants. "RUBEN DISTURBED YOUR MOUND. I AM HERE AS A JOURNALIST."

It's important to maintain your objectivity.

While the mound was swarming, Adrian opened a vial and released a bunch of phorid flies. The flies, which are almost invisible -- little swooping specks -- immediately went after the ants. At least the female flies did. Presumably the males, observing the Universal Guy Top Priority, tried to mate with the females.

Anyway, I think it's a terrific idea, using natural enemies to attack fire ants. To the Department of Agriculture, I say: Good work! To the female phorid flies, I say: You go, girls! And to any fire ants that happen to be crawling on this column, I say: REMEMBER, I DID NOT DISTURB YOUR MOUND.




-- Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald.

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