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Fire ants decline in Florida as 'crazy ants' advance

Those Floridians who have conceded defeat in the war with invasive species, who have yielded their canals to Nile monitors and the entire Everglades to Burmese pythons, can take a small measure of comfort from a report this week about the decline of the fire ant.

Entomologists have documented a sharp drop in fire ant mounds, reports the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The fire ant, which inflicted its first stinging bite on a Floridian ankle sometime in the 1930s, ruled the state's back yards with the kind of vicious hauteur reserved for a species that knew it had arrived in a place with no natural predators.

For decades it honed a swarming technique that enabled it to overwhelm its prey with a simultaneous venomous sting that could bring down large animals. Fatal attacks on nursing home patients have been documented, according to the newspaper.

"In floods, they will form a ball of ants around the queen and float, with a constant exchange of ants at the bottom so they don't drown, and swarm suddenly onto whatever building or animal they bump into," Sun-Sentinel reporter David Fleshler writes.

It's estimated they cause $600 million in damage every year.

But now scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have noted a decline in colonies in Broward County and around Ocala. Instead of healthy colonies with multiple queens, researchers are finding colonies with one queen and fewer ants. To which, we say, "Hooray."

Researchers plan to do a more comprehensive survey of the state over the next two months. But already they have advanced a few theories about who should get credit for fewer ruined picnics.

One leading contender is a tiny brain-devouring insect called the phorid fly. Also an invader, the phorid fly deposits its eggs and then the larva gorge on the ant's gray matter. A small meal, it would seem, but sufficient for the larva.

Changes in climate, disease and competition from other ants are also getting fire ant-slaying praise from entomologists. So it might be a kind Murder on the Orient Express type of killing where everyone gets to plunge the knife in.

But here's where the cheering of the state's barefoot children decrescendoes a bit.

You see, there's another ant out there that is coming on strong. Pest Control Technology, one of those publications that probably doesn't get the attention it deserves, reported this week that a species called the Rasberry crazy ant has gained a few billion footholds in Texas and Florida.

The ants got their name from Tom Rasberry, the pest control expert in Houston who first identified them, as well as their erratic style of foraging for food. And they have already demonstrated a style of coordinated siege that fire ants should bow before. Confronted with a pesticide bait, "the ants simply pile on top of the ant cadavers to create a bridge into the structure," said Donna DeFranco in Pest Control Technology. Wow.

They came most likely from somewhere in the Caribbean in the early 2000s, but they've already established a reputation for eating beneficial insects (honeybees, for example), protecting insects we'd rather they didn't (like aphids), and vandalizing electronic circuitry. An invasion of the Johnson Space center in Houston, where they shut down electrical systems and computer networks, drew the attention of the Department of Homeland Security.

Gives a whole new meaning to the term environmental terrorism.

Bill Duryea, Times staff writer