SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tawny crazy ants. Sounds like something out of a sci-fi thriller. But it's a real species invading states that include Texas and Florida. Tawny crazy ants arrived from South America in 2002 but they're spreading like crazy. Their gift for multiplication, if you please, is devastating homes and alarming researchers, and they just keep coming.
Robert Puckett is a research scientist at Texas A&M University who's been studying the ants. He joins us now from member station KAMU in College Station, Texas. Dr. Puckett, thanks for being with us.
ROBERT PUCKETT: Hey, how are you?
SIMON: What makes these ants so crazy?
PUCKETT: Well, they're not any crazier than any other ant, in reality. I should mention, I've been studying about ants for many years and, in fact, have begun focusing on these ants in the recent past and they have found their way into our system in the U.S. and they appear to be very happy to be here.
SIMON: What do they do to homes?
PUCKETT: Well, you're probably familiar with ants in a home. Most people have had ants that trail into their pantry or along their countertops. These ants, they come in in almost unbelievable number in infestations to the point that it becomes most difficult to remove them, to physically move them out of the house.
I've seen pictures of garbage can-sized trash bags that are completely full of ants that had been swept over the course of a couple of days from the floor in homes. Yeah, it's a real problem.
SIMON: I mean, somebody looking at a scene like that from the outside would conclude that the home actually belongs to the ants and it's the human who are the interloper.
PUCKETT: There certainly appears to be competition for the ownership in some case.
SIMON: Do the tawny crazy ants inflict not only an actual but emotional burden on the people who have to live with them?
PUCKETT: I can certainly tell you that I've met with many people that were very emotional about it, both angry and sad. I've visited people and actually had people breakdown emotionally in front of me as they were describing the problem that they're dealing with.
SIMON: Do they do anything good?
PUCKETT: Most folks in the South are familiar, in the Southern U.S., are familiar with red imported fire ants. The difference in red imported fire ants and the tawny crazy ants are - well, there's any number of differences, but one of the big differences is the tawny crazy ants don't sting, whereas red imported fire ants have a powerful sting.
It appears that they are displacing, now competing red imported fire ants, and so from the outside looking in you might think, well, that's great. You know, they're removing this species of ant that has a sting and has had some severe ecological consequences associated with it, but the tawny crazy ant numbers are so extraordinarily high, I think folks that are familiar with both ant species would not care to make that trade off.
SIMON: I've gotta tell you, I'm scared to death.
PUCKETT: Well, you don't need to be scared. There are lots and lots of stories of invasive species that have found their way into our system and we've learned to, not only manage them, but to one degree or another coexist, so I think we'll learn to make due with them in our system. And unfortunately, I think we're going to be forced to.
SIMON: Robert Puckett is a research scientist at Texas A&M. He's been studying ants for 10 years. Dr. Puckett, thanks for being with us.
PUCKETT: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: This is NPR News.
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