Exterminator Tom Raspberry was on a job in the Houston area in 2002 when he encountered an insect he didn’t recognize — a small, reddish-brown ant that moved in a peculiar zigzag pattern. The species he’d found, the invasive and often destructivetawny crazy ant, likely arrived from South America by cargo ship and has since been found in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida, and it’s spreading quickly.

The small ant, which measures less than 1/8 inch in length, does not have a stinger and poses no significant danger to humans. However, it’s already making a name for itself by nesting in and damaging electronic equipment, including outdoor air conditioners.

And while tawny crazy ants do not respond to most off-the-shelf baits and sprays, there are still ways to cope with an infestation and slow down the spread of the destructive insect.


A Shocking Situation

Also known as the Raspberry crazy ant, named after Tom Raspberry, the tawny crazy ant is known for reproducing at an incredible rate, creating super colonies, and nesting almost anywhere it can, including under rocks, flower pots, and timber. To make matters worse, the ants are attracted to electrical currents, making contactors and relays prime targets for the pest.

“Here in Texas, I’m hearing most about them getting into air conditioners,” said entomologist Elizabeth “Wizzie” Brown, extension program specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “Once they get into that circuitry, they get shocked and release an alarm pheromone that says, ‘Hey, I’m in trouble, come help me,’ which attracts other ants, who then also get electrocuted and die.”

Eventually, enough ant carcasses accumulate between the contacts, and it can no longer close, resulting in a short circuit and an air conditioning unit that won’t turn on.

Brown compared the tawny crazy ant’s destructive capability to that of the fire ant, a widespread and common pest in the South that causes more than $146 million in equipment damage each year in Texas alone.

But, unlike the fire ant, data on the tawny crazy ant is limited, and entomologists are concerned about how fast it could spread, what kind of damage it could cause, and how it might affect other wildlife in the U.S.

“This is a relatively new insect in Texas, so we have to monitor it to see how it reacts to our climate,” Brown said. “We have to have people reporting and sending in ants so we can track where they are. They could be in other areas, but we just don’t know it yet.”


Little Ant, Big Problem

Sarah Sagredo, president of Atlas Electrical & Air Conditioning in Alton, Texas, said she has had several customers recently whose air conditioners have shorted out because of crazy ants.

“They call because the air conditioner isn’t turning on any more, and it’s because there are ants in the contactor,” she said. “We had a customer two weeks ago who called in and said the a/c wasn’t cooling, and we found ants in the contactors there, too. It’s just crazy.”

In situations like that, Sagredo said her technicians will clean or replace the contactors, then recommend the area be treated by a pest control professional immediately. If the customer doesn’t comply, the problem could quickly recur.

“We went out to a customer one day and found crazy ants, and we had to go out again two days later for the same thing,” Sagredo said. “After the second visit, the customer finally called pest control.”

But Sagredo knows more than most contractors about the tawny crazy ant’s invasive tendencies, having dealt with them in her own home recently.

“I left for work one morning, and when I came back home, there was a huge line of crazy ants going up the wall into my thermostat,” she said. “They ruined the little wires that were connecting in the back of my thermostat, so I had to get it replaced.”

David Vie, director of electronic controls at Emerson Climate Technologies, said it’s not just ants that get into the contactors, either.

“In the South, ants get in there, and earwigs, lady bugs, and more,” he said. “I’ve seen firsthand how ants get into everything. Some customers have problems so often that they pay pest control companies two or three times a year to come out and spray.”

Sealed contactors offer one answer to the problem by keeping ants and other insects out of the contactor entirely.

“If you do have crazy ants, White-Rodgers has a great solution,” said Joann Donelon, director of marketing, White-Rodgers. “The SureSwitch Relay is totally sealed to prevent these guys from damaging the outdoor contactor.”

“It may cost a little more, but it improves the basic contact function and eliminates crazy ant problems,” Vie said.

Slowing the Spread

While the tawny crazy ant spreads relatively slowly on its own — about 200 meters per year in rural areas and 20-30 meters per month in neighborhoods and industrial areas, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service — it has spread much faster due to humans inadvertently transporting infested items, such as flower pots and other landscaping items. The best way to slow the spread, Brown said, is to be sure you don’t move the ants yourself.

“It’s really easy for them to be transported out, so it’s not the ants moving on their own as much as somebody transporting something that was infested and establishing a new population,” she said.

Additionally, Brown said many agencies and businesses, including the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, have been working to get the word out about the tawny crazy ant. “We try to do a good job of getting the information out through the media and social media.”

“We posted about it on our Facebook page to raise awareness,” Sagredo added. “We also did an article in a magazine for women around here, notifying them that they needed to watch for these ants.”

If a customer has an ant infestation, Brown said it is best to call in a pest control professional to deal with the situation — and deal with it quickly.

“It’s really important to figure out what kind of ants you have,” she said. “Once they are identified, then professionals can direct you to the best way to treat that infestation.”

For more information about the tawny crazy ant, visit http://bit.ly/10uPeD4.

Publication date: 8/5/2013 

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