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At USF St. Petersburg, a biology professor sees the human side of fire ants

Fire ants float on a raft made of their bodies as minnows feed on them in Mirror Lake Park in St. Petersburg. Univer?sity of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Deby Cassill and a BBC film crew documented the scene Wednesday.
Published Jun. 22, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG

Two million fire ants are crawling around inside a modest off-white building on Third Street S.

A nasty infestation? Think again.

The insects belong to Deby Cassill, a biology professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, who spent the past two weeks with a BBC crew filming a five-part series called Animals Like Us.

The makers of the documentary were attracted by Cassill's focus on the ways fire ants, which are plentiful in Florida, interact with each other like people.

"A lot of people study them at the colony level," said Cassill, who has researched fire ants for 25 years. "I look at them like a psychologist."

She regularly harvests ant colonies and keeps them in open plastic containers around her 1,600-square-foot lab space, housed next to the university's old Piano Man building. She lines the Tupperware-like bins with talc powder to keep the insects from leaving.

Friends call her when they spot fire ants around Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and she goes to pick them up with large buckets and a shovel. She has gone as far as Sebring to collect a colony.

Because the ants aren't legally protected animals and are often viewed as pests, it's easy to find them, Cassill said.

She is adamant that they are more like humans than most people are willing to consider. She said she sees loyalty and gentleness when she looks at the ants. And, like humans, ant families go to war with each other over territory, she said.

The walls of her office are decorated with diplomas — she has five degrees, including a doctorate in biology. Sitting at her computer watching a research video, she moves the mouse over a pad with an ant design.

"They do this cute little booty wiggle," she said as the camera zooms in on one ant. "They only do it when they're taking care of the babies. It's an expression of love."

Another video shows an ant gingerly carrying a baby ant in its pincers.

"These jaws that can kill another ant and bring blood to a human carry this egg so gently," she said.

Cassill has always loved insects. She remembers getting a ribbon at a middle school science fair for an ant project. When she turned 40, she left her data analytics job to study biology. Cassill is currently researching maternal investment and studying how the insects feed their offspring.

This month, a BBC camera operator and film director from the United Kingdom traveled 5,000 miles to St. Petersburg — "a bit of a pain," said director Rob Pilley — to spend two weeks with Cassill and her ant colonies. The pair filmed hundreds of hours of material, which will be whittled down to a six-minute clip.

The documentary focuses on animals that are similar to people. Others include elephants, prairie dogs and dolphins.

Cassill believes that ants should be treated with the same compassion as other lab animals, but she understands when people raise an eyebrow. She has been stung thousands of times herself, and she doesn't fault people for killing ants when they find them in their homes.

She jokes that she gets two reactions when strangers find out about her research: curiosity or disgust.

People say, " 'Tell me more,' or 'Ants make me itchy. Go away!' "

On Tuesday, outside her lab, hundreds of the red insects glittered in the sun in a tub filled with water. They swam together and started to form a raft as a large BBC camera loomed over them.

Pilley said he has a new appreciation for fire ants after spending time with Cassill.

"The more you look at fire ants, the more you say, 'My goodness. They're just like humans,' " he said, although the stings he has gotten while filming are irritating.

"We swear a lot," camera operator Rod Clarke added.

As the team filmed Wednesday at Mirror Lake Park in downtown St. Petersburg, 62-year-old Paul Davoren watched from a nearby bench. The St. Petersburg resident had stopped while on a bike ride.

He shuddered when he found out the crew was filming fire ants. Davoren said he was once hospitalized after stepping on a fire ant mound.

"I hate 'em," he said. "They're mean."

He said he doesn't mind the insects as long as he doesn't have to see them.

"I guess they're here for a purpose," he said.

Contact Ayana Stewart at astewart@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913.

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