Headless Zombie Fire Ants, Brain-Eating Flies!

January 15, 2010

FIRE ANTS ATTACKED by BRAIN-EATING FLY MAGGOTS, transformed into HEADLESS ZOMBIES. So says the ever-helpful Kavita Sharma, an Auburn University entomologist in fire ant-plagued Alabama, a likely port of disembarkation for the painfully-biting red imported fire ant invasion of the United States that began in earnest during World War II.

If you missed it on the evening news or failed to scan the supermarket tabloid headlines, the Internet tabloid journalists have had fun dramatizing it on You Tube. Not that the brain-eating flies have yet provided much relief from the ever-expanding, biting fire ant invasion raging from Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico to Florida and the Carolinas. Indeed, the ants may be bent on global colonization, having expanded from their South America homeland in Argentina to North America, Australia and other continents.

Several decades of pesticide spraying, and more recently poison baits, have done little to slow the spread of the biting ants, which have effectively colonized the southern U.S. and seem to be adapting to slightly cooler northern climes. Not that it is all bad, if you can avoid being bitten. The ravenous ants provide vital biological pest control on some farms; for example ridding cotton farms of bollworms, weevils and other pests that would otherwise be sprayed with pesticides. No doubt, the ants would also make mincemeat and hash out of any bedbugs in an infested mattress placed in their path.

But the pain of the bites and the problematic fire ant mounds erupting in lawns and pastures necessitate control measures. As is typical of pest control programs, years of failed but costly chemical eradication eventually breed pesticide-resistant insects. Score one point for the fire ants and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Score good revenues for valiant pest control efforts. But longer term, insect genetics adapt to almost anything thrown at them.

In the 1954 sci-fi flick, Them, even Fess Parker (Davy Crockett fame), Leonard Nimoy (an uncredited, pre-Star Trek role) and James Whitmore’s bullets failed to stem a mutant ant invasion linked to atomic tests. But James Arness (of later Gunsmoke fame) finally routed the giant mutant ants colonizing downtown Los Angeles with an orgy of messy napalm-like flame throwers. Poison baits minimizing environmental contamination and brain-eating flies providing biological ant control look elegant in comparison. Indeed, pest control has come a long way in the half century since Rachel Carson railed against pesticides.

In her poster display at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in downtown Indianapolis, Kavita Sharma provided scientific details on how the brain-eating phorid flies locate fresh worker fire ant brains and turn the ants into zombies. Pheromone-like chemicals may be involved. One of the phorid fly species introduced into the U.S. from Argentina for fire ant biocontrol is literally super-efficient and would make time management experts proud. When not in the maggot stage eating ant brains, adult flies combine mating with searching out worker fire ants with nourishing brains to attack. No doubt more to come on You Tube’s Zombie Ant Channel.