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Stinging, Invasive Pest Face Viral Extermination

Last Edited: Sunday, 06 May 2007, 3:04 PM CDT
Created: Sunday, 06 May 2007, 3:04 PM CDT
AP Agriculture Writer
LUBBOCK, Texas -- The battle against red fire ants has plagued farmers, ranchers and regular folks for decades. Now it seems the reviled pests could be in for some sickness of their own.

Researchers have pinpointed a naturally occurring virus that kills fire ants, which arrived in the U.S. in the 1930s and now cause $6 billion in damage annually nationwide, including about $1.2 billion in Texas.

The virus caught the attention of U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers in Florida in 2002. The agency is now seeking commercial partners to develop the virus into a pesticide to control fire ants.

The virus was found in about 20 percent of fire ant fields, where it appears to cause the slow death of infected colonies.

"Certainly, we are excited about it," said Bob Vander Meer, the leader of the USDA research team in Gainesville, Fla. "I think the virus has great potential. No question about it."

The massive fire ant colonies destroy crops, damage farm and electrical equipment and hasten soil erosion. Humans and livestock are particularly vulnerable to the insect's stinging attacks.

With no natural predators to keep them in check, fire ants have spread across the U.S., where their numbers are now 10 times greater than in their native South America. They thrive in open sunny areas such as cropland, pastures, and urban lawns, and they like moisture.

"Sustained control is what we're trying to achieve," said Steve Valles, an entomologist in the Gainesville research lab. "Eradication is not going to happen."

Fire ants have been detected in 13 states, covering 320 million acres, and are spreading northward. The pest has been found as far north as Virginia and along parts of the California coastline.

In the laboratory, the virus, SINV-1, has proven to be self-sustaining and transmissible. Once introduced, it can eliminate a colony within three months.

That's why researchers believe the virus has potential as a viable biopesticide to control fire ants, known to scientists as Solenopsis invicta.

Although it occurs naturally in fire ants, the virus needs a stressor before it becomes deadly and begins replicating within a colony, Valles said.

Integrating the virus into ant baits could offer a tool to the pest-control industry, agricultural producers and harvesters, consumers and others for whom fire ants are a persistent problem.

First, though, a company must be found to grow, package and apply pesticide under field conditions.

"There has been some interest already," Vander Meer said.

Valles said three companies have contacted him since his lab put out a call in mid-April.

The virus isn't alone in the fight against the fire ant. In South America, they have dozens of natural enemies. But researchers don't know whether those predators could be introduced here.

Among them is the small phorid fly, which seeks out fire ants and lays its eggs on them. The eggs hatch into tiny maggots that bore into the heads of their host and feed on its brains.

"The problem is we really don't know how effective these phorid flies are going to be in North America," Merchant said.

Some Texans may have thought the fire ant problem was improving. Drought conditions across much of the state in recent years have only driven them deeper under ground.

"One thing you can thank the dry weather for is it keeps the fire ants down," Mike Merchant, an extension entomologist in the cooperative's Dallas office, said.

This year, though, wet conditions have returned and that will increase pests' visibility.

"I think those fire ants are waking up," said Bart Drees, an entomologist with the Texas Cooperative Extension in College Station said.

The fire ant isn't all bad. As omnivores, they eat just about anything and can reduce tick populations in pastures and yards. Also, cotton and sugarcane growers see them as helpful. The ants munch on boll weevils, caterpillars and sugarcane borers.

"But on balance they're an ecological disaster," Merchant said. "The good that they do is far outweighed by the negative."


On the Net:

Extension: http://www.extension.org/fire+ants

Texas A&M University's Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project: http://fireant.tamu.edu/


Betsy Blaney has been the AP's Lubbock correspondent since 2001 and regularly reports on agricultural issues.

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistribu

12,586 Posts
I don't think we have them here yet either, but they really give me the heebie jeebies. :-X

I have an aunt and cousins in Texas (Arlington). My mom told me a story about their elderly dog who fell into a nest and was stung to death. :'( :'( :'( That story has haunted me ever since.

They are the debil.
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