Argentine ants: curse or blessing?

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rgentine ants are tiny, fast crawling insects believed to have arrived in the U.S. from South America in the port of Mobile around 1891. They now occur in most of the southern states and in California.

The ants are household pests and are often seen in large numbers on garden plants tending aphids, which secrete a sugary liquid, honeydew, consumed by the ants. For this reason, aphids are sometimes referred to as “ant cows.”

The ants do not sting or bite, but they have a remarkable ability to take advantage of nearly every accessible food product they can find in houses. One evening not long ago, Janie prepared some sugary cinnamon toast and left the pan on the kitchen counter. The following morning, hundreds if not thousands of the ants were on and around the pan. It took me 30 minutes to eliminate the swarm.

The ant scouts search for anything edible and upon finding something will alert the workers as to its whereabouts. I’ve learned to thoroughly clean the kitchen sink and counters and to avoid placing any leftover food in the kitchen garbage can. Any leftover food is tossed over the deck into the woods. I also carefully rinse all used plates and utensils before placing them in the dishwasher. If I discover any ant scouts searching for food, I squish them immediately. Problem solved.

Anyone reading this column so far might assume that I have an intense dislike of Argentine ants. I do not, and I’ll tell you why.

Six years ago, on the few acres of open land on my property, I could find numerous imported fire ant mounds. Dr. Lawrence Graham,  Auburn’s fire ant specialist, had been releasing parasitic flies that attack fire ants. One day I asked him about his undertaking. He informed me that a population of the flies had been established in Notasulga and that he had seen some at the Vet School.

“You probably have some on your place,” he said. I asked him how I could determine if they were present. He replied,”When you get home, kick over a fire ant mound, look carefully, and you’ll see the tiny white flies hovering over the ants.”

Returning home, I searched for a fire ant mound and to my surprise could not locate a single one, and I haven’t seen one since. That was six years ago!

I asked Dr. Graham if the flies might be responsible for the ants’ disappearance. He said, “There’s no way the flies could have completely eliminated the ants. It is possible that Argentine ants could have displaced them.”

I am led to believe his hypothesis is correct. Any large rock or other large sheltering object on my place will likely have a colony of Argentines beneath. As nearly as I can determine, unlike fire ants, the Argentines are not serious predators on the soft-shelled eggs and newly hatched young of reptiles or on nestlings of birds that nest on or close to the ground.

Many landowners in these parts tell me they see far fewer fire ant mounds now than in the past. If the Argentines are displacing them, I am pleased to have them residing on my property.

In last week’s edition of this newspaper, Extension Agent Mallory Kelley wrote about the tawny crazy ants, which first showed up in Florida in 1953. The range has expanded and now includes 20 counties in Florida, 24 in Texas and several in coastal areas in Louisiana and Mississippi. Last year, the ants were reported in Albany, Ga., and most recently they have been found in Mobile County.

Reportedly, the crazy ants displace native ant species and also the imported fire ants. Because they occur in such large numbers and have a tendency to invade and establish colonies in houses, automobiles, pump houses and fuse boxes, causing short circuits, they are regarded by some to be more serious pests than fire ants.

How far northward the crazy ants can extend their range has not been determined. Stay tuned.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

 

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