Local researchers seek safe way to control tawny crazy ants

Image description
TAWNY
The spread of tawny crazy ants, sometimes called raspberry crazy ants, is as intriguing as the invasive insect’s name.

Researchers from the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve and the Brackenridge Field Laboratory, University of Texas partnered to study the impact the ants have on Travis County and how any negative effects might be curtailed.

Tawny crazy ants are native to Central and South America and have been spreading throughout the Gulf Coast region since they were introduced into Houston in 2000, said Edward LeBrun, a research scientist at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory.

The first population in the Austin metro was found near Briarcliff in the Lake Travis area in 2011, LeBrun said. More colonies have popped up around the county since, though not necessarily from the original group.

“They can come from anywhere,” LeBrun said. “The way they spread is when people who live in infested areas have something outside they move, like a potted plant. Unfortunately, RVs are also a common way of moving them around.”

Most of Travis County is not infested yet, though, LeBrun said.

“When you’re in an infested area, you know it,” he added.

Tawny crazy ants are part of a subfamily of ants that spray acid as their defense and attack mechanism. They are aggressive, but small, so their bite does not hurt, LeBrun said.

“What happens is, you put your hand on a tree or step in the grass and they will swarm up your arm or leg, bite you and spray acid in the bite,” he said. “It’s annoying but doesn’t really hurt.”

Unlike fire ants, tawny crazy ants will come into the home, and controlling them requires pesticides that have to be reapplied more than is legally allowed, LeBrun said. The ants also nest in electrical boxes and destroy the wiring, becoming an economic burden as well.

Disrupting native habitats

While the ants are a nuisance for humans, they can be harmful to the ecosystems they invade.

Travis County Wildlife Biologist Travis Clark is looking at what effects the ants have on prey-based arthropods, a food source for golden cheeked warblers, an endangered Texas bird.

LeBrun said his team did a study in Houston that compared habitats invaded by ants with those just outside the infested area.

“There was a really dramatic reduction in arthropod abundance and invertebrates,” he said. “They are the base of the food web and important for determining how plant populations operate.”

He said forests where the ants have invaded are quiet. There is little insect and bird song because so much biomass has been channeled into making ants. The ants are “super colonial,” meaning all of the nests within a population are members of the same colony and share resources.

The researchers at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory believe a microsporidia pathogen could be the first step in inoculating populations. Microsporidia are fungi, or organisms that live in the cells of other organisms. The virus-like phenomenon could control the ants without harming other creatures. The strain the researchers are working with has been found in populations in Florida and other parts of Texas, LeBrun said. Experts are not sure if it came from South America or was acquired by ants in the U.S., but because it’s already here, it decreases risk calculations as a control agent.


MOST RECENT

Photo of three men drinking at a tiki bar
Ramen Tatsu-Ya readies new South Austin concept, plus more area business news

Tiki bar and restaurant Tiki Tatsu-Ya is set to open later this summer.

Minnesota-based Rockler Woodworking and Hardware will open a location in La Frontera in late September. (Brooke Sjoberg/Community Impact Newspaper)
Rockler Woodworking and Hardware coming to Round Rock

Minnesota-based Rockler Woodworking and Hardware is coming to La Frontera in Round Rock in late September.

The proposed Wild Ridge master-planned neighborhood northeast of downtown Dripping Springs would include 960 homes on 40- to 60-foot-wide lots. (Courtesy City of Dripping Springs)
Master-planned neighborhood in Dripping Springs to bring 960 homes, new roads

The proposed development by Meritage Homes would feature amenities such as a disc golf course.

Q&A: Greg Smith, executive director of Fast Growth School Coalition

Greg Smith is the former superintendent of Clear Creek ISD and became executive director of Fast Growth School Coalition in December 2020. 

Photo of the Travis County sign
Travis County proposes tax rate for 2021-22 fiscal year, prepares for budget approval process

Due to increasing property values, the property tax rate is expected to be around $0.017 lower in the coming fiscal year.

Photo of school supples
Parents weigh in: What are your considerations heading into the 2021-22 school year?

Community Impact Newspaper seeks parent feedback as we prepare for our annual education edition.

Photo of the Austin Police Department
City of Austin certifies Save Austin Now's petition to increase police staffing, adding it to fall ballot

The measure would require two police officers for every 1,000 area residents, among other provisions.

TxDOT will stop removing trees as a part of the Oak Hill Parkway project until the injunction hearing Sept. 2. (Courtesy Falcon Sky Photography)
TxDOT temporarily halts removal of trees, but Oak Hill Parkway construction continues

Opponents of the parkway see the latest development as a “window of hope.”

Photo of a doctor with a pregnant woman
Austin health experts warn delta variant could pose higher risk for pregnant women

Maternal medicine doctors across Central Texas have seen increasing numbers of pregnant women coming to the hospital with breathing issues and pregnancy complications as a result of COVID-19.

Wayback Burgers makes cooked-to-order burgers and hand-dipped milkshakes. (Courtesy Wayback Burgers)
6 eateries open or coming to Cedar Park, Leander; Trudy's North Star reopens in Northwest Austin and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area, including Tiff's Treats opening in Hutto.

Austin ISD will offer virtual learning, expecting about 5% of students to apply. (Courtesy Unsplash)
Austin public schools release virtual learning plan

Austin ISD will offer virtual learning, expecting about 5% of students to apply.

student writing on paper
Texas Legislature allows parents to opt for students to repeat grade levels or courses

Senate Bill 1697 is effective for the 2021-22 school year.