Image: Queen hairy crazy ant
Joe Macgown  /  AP
A 2009 photo from the Mississippi State Entomological Museum shows a queen Nylanderia pubens in Starkville, Miss.
By
updated 10/1/2011 11:34:48 AM ET 2011-10-01T15:34:48

It sounds like a horror movie: Biting ants invade by the millions. A camper's metal walls bulge from the pressure of ants nesting behind them. A circle of poison stops them for only a day, and then a fresh horde shows up, bringing babies. Stand in the yard, and in seconds ants cover your shoes.

It's an extreme example of what can happen when the ants — which also can disable huge industrial plants — go unchecked. Controlling them can cost thousands of dollars. But the story is real, told by someone who's been studying ants for a decade.

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"Months later, I could close my eyes and see them moving," said Joe MacGown, who curates the ant, mosquito and scarab collections at the Mississippi State Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University.

He's been back to check on the hairy crazy ants. They're still around. The occupant isn't.

The flea-sized critters are called crazy because each forager scrambles randomly at a speed that your average picnic ant, marching one by one, reaches only in video fast-forward. They're called hairy because of fuzz that, to the naked eye, makes their abdomens look less glossy than those of their slower, bigger cousins.

And they're on the move in Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. In Texas, they've invaded homes and industrial complexes, urban areas and rural areas. They travel in cargo containers, hay bales, potted plants, motorcycles and moving vans. They overwhelm beehives — one Texas beekeeper was losing 100 a year in 2009. They short out industrial equipment.

If one gets electrocuted, its death releases a chemical cue to attack a threat to the colony, said Roger Gold, an entomology professor at Texas A&M.

"The other ants rush in. Before long, you have a ball of ants," he said.

A computer system controlling pipeline valves shorted out twice in about 35 days, but monthly treatments there now keep the bugs at bay, said exterminator Tom Rasberry, who found the first Texas specimens of the species in the Houston area in 2002.

"We're kind of going for overkill on that particular site because so much is at stake," he said. "If that shuts down, they could literally shut down an entire chemical plant that costs millions of dollars."

And, compared to other ants, these need overkill. For instance, Gold said, if 100,000 are killed by pesticides, millions more will follow.

"I did a test site with a product early on and applied the product to a half-acre ... In 30 days I had two inches of dead ants covering the entire half-acre," Rasberry said. "It looked like the top of the dead ants was just total movement from all the live ants on top of the dead ants."

But the Mississippi story is an exception, Rasberry said. Control is expensive, ranging from $275 to thousands of dollars a year for the 1,000 homes he's treated in the past month. Still, he's never seen the ants force someone out of their home, he said.

The ants don't dig out anthills and prefer to nest in sheltered, moist spots. In MacGown's extreme example in Waveland, Miss., the house was out in woods with many fallen trees and piles of debris. They will eat just about anything — plant or animal.

Image; Hairy crazy ants and larvae
Blake Layton  /  AP
A photo provided by the Mississippi State Entomological Museum shows hairy crazy ants and their larvae in Starkville, Miss.

The ants are probably native to South America, MacGown said. But they were recorded in the Caribbean by the late 19th century, said Jeff Keularts, an extension associate professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. That's how they got the nickname "Caribbean crazy ants." They've also become known as Rasberry crazy ants, after the exterminator.

Now they're making their way through parts of the Southeast. Florida had the ants in about five counties in 2000 but today is up to 20, MacGown said. Nine years after first being spotted in Texas, that state now has them in 18 counties. So far, they have been found in two counties in Mississippi and at least one Louisiana parish.

Texas has temporarily approved two chemicals in its effort to eradicate the ants, and other states are looking at ways to curb their spread.

Controlling them can be tricky. Rasberry said he's worked jobs where other exterminators had already tried and failed. Gold said some infestations have been traced to hay bales hauled from one place to another for livestock left without grass by the drought that has plagued Texas.

MacGown said he hopes their numbers are curbed in Louisiana and Mississippi before it's too late.

The hairy crazy ants do wipe out one pest — fire ants — but that's cold comfort.

"I prefer fire ants to these," MacGown said. "I can avoid a fire ant colony."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Ten of nature's scariest animals

  • Stephen Chernin  /  AP file

    Humans seem to love a good scare, particularly on Halloween. Ghosts, zombies, vampires and other fictional characters are good for putting a chill down your spine. But if you're looking for something truly scary, let nature be your guide. Click on the "Next" label to see 10 of the animal world's scariest creatures.

  • Box jellyfish pack a deadly sting

    Anders Garm

    The box jellyfish is ghostly and squishy, with 24 eyes and a tangle of tentacles, each equipped with about 5,000 stinging cells. The creatures pack a special type of venom — the most deadly in the animal kingdom — that is activated by contact with certain chemicals found in fish, shellfish and humans. The venom can cause cardiac arrest, cripple the nervous system, and eat away skin. Several victims stung at sea die before they reach shore.

  • Black mamba: Speedy snake with lethal venom

    Eric Marquette

    Even people who are fearless around snakes should be careful in the presence of a black mamba. Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the territorial and aggressive snakes grow up to 14 feet long and travel at speeds of more than 12 miles per hour. Fortunately, black mambas are shy and usually race away when humans approach. But when threatened, they attack with repeated strikes to deliver lethal venom. Only a quickly administered antidote saves victims from death. The black mamba gets its name from the color of the inside of its mouth, seen here.

  • Saltwater crocodiles eat people

    Greg Wood  /  AFP - Getty Images

    Saltwater crocodiles are aggressive and territorial. And unlike their North American alligator cousins, they regularly eat people. They live in saltwater estuaries, and freshwater rivers and swamps, ranging from Australia north to Southeast Asia. The biggest males weigh in excess of 2,200 pounds and measure 20 feet from toothy snout to scaly tail, making them the world's largest reptiles. Though they mostly dine on smaller prey such as fish and shorebirds, adults will occasionally tackle larger animals, including careless people. Tourists lure this croc out of the water with a chunk of meat.

  • Polar bears: a poster child best left alone

    USFWS

    Polar bears are a poster child for groups campaigning to save the world from the ravages of global warming. But the cute and cuddly image that polar bears project are an icy disguise. Polar bears are the world's largest land predators; some males top the scales at 1,500 pounds and wield 2-inch-long claws. They normally kill seals and the occasional walrus twice their size. Human attacks are extremely rare but potentially fatal.

  • Wolves are revered and feared

    AP file

    Revered by some, feared by others, the gray wolf is the world's biggest, most powerful dog. Strong jaws and sharp teeth help them rip into their prey. Wolves primarily hunt deer, moose and bison, but when wild supplies are tight, domestic cattle and sheep are easy targets — hence the wolf's uneasy relationship with humans. In the 20th century, the predators were nearly hunted to extinction. Continued fear of the wolf continues to muddy their road to recovery.

  • Lions take a mean bite

    Daniel Munoz  /  Reuters

    In 1898, a pair of lions reportedly ate 135 people working on a railroad in Kenya. Though lions continue to make the occasional human meal, most of the slaughtering now goes the other way. Today, the cats are vulnerable to extinction, due to their human predators. Conservationists are racing to keep the survivors alive. In this image, two lions at a Sydney zoo gaze at each other before a non-human meal.

  • Shark attacks: Very feared, very rare

    Image: Casa Rinconada
    Reuters

    Maybe the 1975 film "Jaws" is to blame, but whatever the cause, many humans are terrified of the great white shark, the largest predatory fish in the ocean. The fear is understandable: These giants have a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, they can reach 20 feet in length, and they top the scales at 5,000 pounds. Despite all that, scientists insist the predators pose little risk to humans. They say the chances of winning the lottery are higher than the chance of being attacked by a great white. Moreover, most attacks are not fatal. In this image, a great white swims past a cage holding tourists.

  • Scariest spider is a recluse

    Image: Chankillo
    Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file

    Tarantulas give lots of people the creeps, but scientists say most of the big and hairy spiders are harmless to humans. The real spider to fear is the brown recluse, a six-eyed spider with a violin-shaped head and a venomous bite that can lead to necrosis — the death of skin tissue. Fortunately, as their name suggests, the spiders are reclusive and seldom aggressive, only biting when threatened. Most bites have little or no effect on their human victims, but some are nasty and even fatal.

  • Mosquitoes kill millions every year

    USDA

    The world's deadliest animal? The mosquito. In some parts of the world, these pesky, bloodsucking insects spread diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile Virus that kill nearly 3 million people a year. Many of the malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where scientists and international aid organizations are busy developing strategies to stop the disease's lethal spread.

  • Vampire bats feed on blood

    Ho  /  AFP - Getty Images

    Finally, what list of scary animals would be complete without the vampire bat? The thumb-sized flying mammals with eight-inch wingspans feed exclusively on blood in the dark of night. Their prime targets are cattle and horses, but they are known to attack humans, too. Heat sensors in the bat's nose help it find flowing blood. They bite through the skin with razor-sharp teeth and lap up what oozes out.

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