Fire ant killing protozoa found in 120 Texas counties

STEPHENVILLE If imported fire ants dreamed and who knows if they do or don't then a tiny protozoa could be their worst nightmare.

Even better news: Texas A&M University System entomologists have completed a survey that detected the protozoa in fire ant colonies in approximately 120 of the 157 Texas counties where they have been found.

Once a colony is infected, the protozoa debilitates the queen, the workers and even the larvae. The disease shortens their the ants' life spans and raises the mortality of sexual females. The tiny microorganism may not eradicate the fire ants but it has the potential of changing it from a highly aggressive pest into one much less competitive with native species, said Dr. Forrest Mitchell, entomologist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Stephenville.

Now that the survey is complete, the next step is to grow the protozoa on culture mediums. If culturing is successful, the research might eventually yield a product that would introduce the protozoa into fire ant mounds in the form of a bait. Alternately, infected fire ants might be introduced into areas where the protozoa is not present.

But there are a lot of questions to be answered and problems to be solved first.

The first question, Mitchell said, is where did the protozoans come from?

Though there are several native species of fire ant, their stings pale compared to their more aggressive cousin, the red imported fire ant, which was accidentally introduced to the United States in the 1930s. Because it lacks natural predators here, the red imported fire ant has spread to all or portions of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma. The species has become very abundant, displacing many native ant species.

Scientists have long known that one of the pest's natural enemies in South America is Thelohania solenopsae, a microscopic organism related to the amoeba.


Contact: Robert Burns
Texas A&M University - Agricultural Communications

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