So-called crazy ants are spreading rapidly across the south, a tiny but ferocious breed of insect that is almost impervious to traditional pesticides.
The small breed of ant, called Tawny crazy ants, made their way from South America to the American Southwest, first showing up in Texas in 2002. Since then they have spread to at least four other states --- Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida --- and are expected to make their way into Alabama soon.
As they are moving, scientists are working desperately to find a way to stop them or at least find a weakness.
While Tawny crazy ants are not known to bit like fire ants, they do multiply very quickly and congregate around electrical equipment, like the floorboards of homes and inside car engines.
Once inside, they have been known to cause massive damage.
"The tawny crazy ant forms extended colonies from many subcolonies connected by trails," said Stoy Hedges, a senior technical professional with Terminix. "Once they find a resource site for food, they continually forage in trails to that site, including into buildings. They are known to be attracted to electrical junctions in HVAC units and cause malfunctions to this expensive equipment."
They also attack by the thousand.
"You almost have to see it to believe what a nuisance these can become," said Robert Puckett, an associate research scientist at Texas A&M University. "I've been in people's houses where they show me trash bags full of ants they've swept up."
The hardest part is that traditional pesticides seem to do little to the Tawny crazy ants. Homeowners have reported killing the ant by the thousand with poison, yet doing little to slow the invasion.
Now, the dangerous ants are closing in on the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. Though they've yet to do any significant damage, officials said large swarms have been found in the center's mall.
"We are principally concerned about the possible damage to infrastructure such as electronics, employees' automobiles, and our facilities," said NASA Houston Facilities Management and Operations Chief Shelia Powell.
Officials are not quite sure how far north the Tawny crazy ants could migrate or even an effective strategy to eliminate them. But there are efforts in the works to learn more about the ants, including several projects at Texas A&M designed to learn more about the ants and how to combat them.