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Sunday, 25 June 2006
Stinging Fire Ants Have Good Points


Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, SC)

A word in defense of the much-maligned fire ant.

Two reports last week belie the notion that the only good fire ant is a dead fire ant. The fire ants' predatory ways actually have their benefits, say entomologists.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a decade-long series of droughts in Texas have suppressed populations of the moisture-loving fire ants. To those of us who've battled the stinging scourges, that seems like a good thing. But fire ants help control other pests, including cattle-plaguing ticks. A veterinarian in Navasota, Texas, said he has been getting more calls about tick-infested pets and livestock in the past couple of years.

The eggs and larvae of other harmful insects, including ticks, chiggers, fleas and cockroaches are favorite meals for fire ants, the Journal reports. They also help farmers by eating crop pests, such as boll weevils and sugarcane borers.

But the Journal also reports that fire ants devour young bird and reptile hatchlings and destroy electrical systems by nesting in motors and wiring boxes. The insect costs the nation nearly $6 billion annually in damages, lost revenue and insect-control measures, according to economists.

Global commerce means more opportunity for the fire ant to be transported around the world. Fire ants are thought to have made their way from South America to Mobile, Ala., around 1930 by stowing away in ships' cargo. They've spread across the Southeast and most recently into California. And they also have made their way to Australia and parts of Europe, Africa and Asia.

As the fire ant continues to spread across the country and the world, it's important that we fully understand its place in our ecosystems.

University of Georgia entomologist John Ruberson, for example, is studying how the ants' underground activity affects the soil, the Journal reports. The ants can move more earth than earthworms, loosening soil and getting more water and oxygen to plant roots.

Florida State University biologist Walter Tschinkel is unabashed in his admiration for the fire ant. "I love fire ants," is the opening statement of his new book. He considers them an "opportunistic" insect and maintains they are less invasive than humans.

So the next time you come across a fire ant mound in your yard, consider leaving it be unless you or a loved one are deadly allergic to the sting. Its presence could be a good thing.

We never liked chiggers and ticks anyway.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 25 June 2006 )
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