Tawny crazy ants, a species of insect originally from South America, have become a huge nuisance in several U.S. states over the past few years, and are currently affecting the Gulf Coast in particular in the form of a bizarre ant epidemic, Reuters reports.
The invasive species of ants, known as scientifically as Nylanderia fulva, was first discovered in the U.S. in Texas in 2002, and later spread to at least four other states, including Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. Currently, the ants are "within four miles of Alabama," as research scientist Joe MacGown at the Mississippi Entomological Museum told Reuters.
Tawny ants enjoy warm, tight spaces, including around electrical equipment, under floorboards and underneath car engines, where they make them their home and multiply quickly, and living in cars allows them to travel and hitch rides cross country. Although the ants do not bite or sting, they do pose other threats.
"We are principally concerned about the possible damage to infrastructure such as electronics, employees' automobiles, and our facilities," NASA Houston Facilities Management and Operations Chief Shelia Powell said to Reuters, as swarms of the ants have been found around the mall area of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Tex.
Powell explained that NASA has been employing a local extermination company, though not enough is known about their physiology to predict their travel patterns and how best to get rid of them.
"You almost have to see it to believe what a nuisance these can become," Robert Puckett, an associate research scientist at Texas A&M University, told Reuters. "I've been in people's houses where they show me trash bags full of ants they've swept up."
Many homeowners have been spending exorbient amounts to combat the pests, including local resident Diana Tahtinen, who owns a home south of Houston and predicts she has spent $1,000 a year for the past three years battling the tawny crazy ants.
"It has a huge impact on your quality of life," she said.
Scientists also worry that crazy ants could displace local ant species or even doom some to extinction in several states such as Texas and Georgia.
"We're up to 48 species. A whole bunch are not native, but don't have pest status," University of Georgia entomologist Dan Suiter told the Anthens Banner-Herald. "There's dozens and dozens of exotic species, but most are in low numbers."