MSU team monitors tawny crazy ants


June 13, 2017

crazy ant

Tawny crazy ant workers with brood in Hancock County. PHOTO: Dr. Blake Layton

Mississippi State University (MSU) researchers are continuing to study a “crazy” creature found in three of Mississippi’s coastal counties. The tawny crazy ant (Nylanderia fulva) is a non-native ant species that has also been found in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and Georgia. It was first discovered in Mississippi in 2009.

Dr. Blake Layton, an extension professor in MSU’s Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology, has been developing guidelines (downloadable PDF here) to help homeowners deal with heavily infested areas, which can contain millions of ants, and prevent new populations from forming.

“When I go visit homeowners, I’ll ask them if they’ve had an electrical short,” Dr. Layton says. “They don’t just say they’ve had one; they start naming the last half dozen they’ve experienced. That’s the real problem with these things.”

Researchers at MSU, including those with the MSU Extension Service and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, are collaborating with other southern universities to study the tawny crazy ant and track its movement across the southeast United States.

“Everybody combines what they have, but the first step is knowing what populations are really crazy ants and seeing how they’re spreading,” says Joe MacGown, research technician/science illustrator in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology. “My role is providing information to other people. We provide specimens to other researchers who may be doing genetic or chemical work, trying to figure out ways to control these things.”

Tawny crazy ants are known for their erratic movements when foraging, which helped give them their common name. They are often confused with the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile). The tawny crazy ant came to the United States from South America and has been causing issues in Texas and Florida for more than a decade.

MSU Extension agents on the coast help monitor the spread of tawny crazy ants in Mississippi. Although they are easy to kill, the ants are difficult to control because of their massive scale, according to Dr. Layton. Treated areas are often quickly re-infested by ants migrating from adjacent untreated areas. The surviving ones can travel over the large swath of dead ant bodies without contacting insecticide treated surfaces.

“We have several reasonably effective treatments right now, but for a homeowner to do it themselves, it’s tough,” Dr. Layton says. “They really need professional help, and it can be expensive to do it right.”

David Cross, research associate II in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology, studies the cold tolerance of crazy ants. The ants are typically found in warm coastal climates, but Cross says preliminary data shows the ants can be subjected to below freezing temperatures and still rebound. Cross says the ants are “chemical powerhouses” that allows them to drive out other native species when they infest an area.

“A lot of the ecology is still unclear,” he adds. “Maybe the native species will adapt a little bit, and the effect of these really dense populations will be lessened over time.”

It is still unclear how the ants ended up in Mississippi. MacGown said the ants can be unknowingly transported in items such as wood, potted plants and hay if people do not pay close attention to what they are moving.

“People in our larger research group are looking at the genetics of crazy ant populations, where they come from and how they’re spreading,” MacGown concludes. “We don’t really know with certainty right now.”


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