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Turning Ant Against Ant: Controlling a Super-Colony

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Turning Ant Against Ant: Controlling a Super-Colony

Environment

Turning Ant Against Ant: Controlling a Super-Colony

Turning Ant Against Ant: Controlling a Super-Colony

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Ants from Argentina have invaded the United States — and they're rapidly spreading across the West in one giant, mobile super-colony. Now, scientists say they've come up with a potentially ingenious way of fighting the invaders: They coat them with a chemical that makes ant colonies erupt in civil wars.

JOHN NIELSEN: In 1950s movies like the scifi epic Them, giant mutant ants tore tiny, shrieking people into pieces.

(SOUNDBITE FROM THEM)

Unidentified Man: Get the antenna. Get the antenna.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

NIELSEN: But entomologist Brian Fisher of the California Academy of Sciences says even the tiniest ants can be ferocious. For example, here's what happens when a large ant native to California meets up with a group of extremely small Argentine invaders.

BRIAN FISHER: The Argentine ant runs up, maybe six of them, grabs each of the legs of this ant, pulls it to the ground and pulls it apart.

NIELSEN: Fisher says this kind of aggression is partly why tiny Argentine ants have been able to take over so many habitats.

But there's another reason, too. In the United States, these ants hardly ever fight with each other. Neil Tsutsui, an entomologist with the University of California at Irvine, says the Argentine colonies help each other find shade, food and water.

NEIL TSUTSUI: And because of this cooperation their population densities can really get very large. So, for example, here in California almost the whole introduced range in this state is dominated by a single behavioral unit that's cooperative from San Diego all the way up to San Francisco.

NIELSEN: If you live in California, Tsutsui says you've probably seen these ants in your house.

TSUTSUI: They come in, often in very large numbers, looking for food or looking for water or, you know, discovering the pet food bowl.

NIELSEN: They also do a lot of damage in farmer's fields by killing off the native ants that devour crop eating bugs.

Now for years it was assumed that Argentine ants had always formed friendly super-colonies, but then about five years ago Tsutsui went to Argentina and saw colonies of these ants fighting brutal civil wars. He suspected that these wars occurred because the ants in Argentina are much more genetically diverse than those found further north. Because of that, each colony had its own chemical signature and colonies with different smells just didn't seem to get along.

In his lab at UC Irvine, Tsutsui began experimenting with various chemical compounds, looking for one that might start a civil war. The first combinations he tried didn't do anything, but then one day he painted a new formula onto the back of an Argentine ant and dropped it into a treated petri dish full of relatives. It was quickly torn to pieces.

Tsutsui says it's too early to say whether compounds like these will someday end up inside cans of ant spray sold at local hardware stores.

TSUTSUI: But that's sort of the general idea is that instead of spraying insecticides around your house that kill not only Argentine ants, but lots of other nontarget organisms, instead what you could do is maybe apply these chemicals around your house that Argentine ants use to recognize each other and specifically target Argentine ants. Put out a bait maybe that has these chemicals in it. An Argentine ant touches it, walks back to its colony and gets killed by its own nest mates.

NIELSEN: Civil war is never pretty, he says. But in this case it could be a good thing.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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