Zombie fire ants

“The weird way it all works The tiny flies dive bomb the ants, implanting an egg inside the ant’s body. The egg hatches into a worm. That tiny larva wiggles its way into the ant’s head, where it turns the ant — into a mindless zombie.”

This scares the shit out of me…

A copy in case they take it down.


Sarasota, Florida — It’s one of those painful summer memories: fire ants swarm all over your feet, stinging you like crazy. But scientists are now fighting back against fire ants — by turning them into zombies.

This story may make you squeamish, but it’s one you won’t forget.

Angry ants When Fred Santana retired as a local extension agent for the University of Florida, there’s one part of his job he couldn’t let go. He just loves ticking off fire ants.

“They’re always angry!” he said after stirring a sandy mound with a stick and transforming it into a moving mass of furious fire ants. “If you disturb them, they’re angry immediately.”

Every few years, for most of this decade, he’s roamed fields in Sarasota County, getting mounds of Solenopsis invicta — angrius maximus. He’s part of a plan to fight fire ants by releasing thousands of their arch enemies: flies — the tiniest you’ve ever seen. Each one is half the size of the head of a pin.

The angrier the ants, the more likely the tiny flies will attack them and spread from anthill to anthill across Florida. “The flies respond to the ants’ alarm chemical,” Santana explained.

The Grim Reaper They’re called “phorid flies“. The researcher who finds them in South America, then breeds them in Gainesville, is Sanford Porter with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He’s the Grim Reaper of fire ants.

On the phone from his lab, he admits: just how these flies attack the red menace is pretty strange. “It is — but it’s tremendously interesting!” he insisted. “It’s just like ‘Aliens‘. That’s where shows like ‘Aliens’ get their ideas from.”

The weird way it all works The tiny flies dive bomb the ants, implanting an egg inside the ant’s body. The egg hatches into a worm. That tiny larva wiggles its way into the ant’s head, where it turns the ant — into a mindless zombie.

“The maggot inside the ant’s head is trying to protect itself, and it does so by modifying the ant’s behavior,” Porter said.

First, the larva orders the helpless ant to hide out in a far corner of the mound. Two weeks later, the forming fly hits its next stage of growth and gives the ant a new order: get outta here! March away from the mound, and find a nice, cozy spot for what’s next.

There, the forming fly — eats the ant’s brain.

The fire ant’s entire empty head falls off, with the pupa inside.

“I’m not lyin’! That’s the way it works!” Santana said. “They go to the head, and the head drops off! Sometimes, even the legs fall off!”

For two weeks, the forming fly uses the ant’s empty head as a cocoon — growing and changing inside. When it’s time to emerge, the fully grown fly cracks its way out of the head and crawls out just above the ant’s mouth, right between its pincers.

Within four hours, the fly is hovering, mating, and attacking new fire ants.

It will die within a week — possibly within hours.

“It’s a very weird process. How that developed is beyond me,” Santana said.

Why we should fight back Santana sees three big reasons to fight back against fire ants.

First, they’re annoying. Second, they’re expensive; they can ruin crops and attack animals. And third, they’re dangerous. “Fire ants have killed young children, and they’ve killed elderly adults,” Santana said.

“They are a major pest. They estimate they cost the U.S. about $6 billion annually.”

Testing shows the flies stay with the ants. They don’t pester people or picnics.

Changing appetites?

Porter says one of the most common questions he’s asked is, “What happens when the flies run out of fire ants?” Would they eat other kinds of unintended insects?

He answers, “What happens when a squirrel runs out of nuts? It doesn’t start diving in the water and eating fish. Basically, these flies are highly specialized, and when they run out of fire ants — they just die.”

The other question Porter’s often asked, he says, is, “Can you bring some over to my yard?” The flies are exceptionally hard to raise and expensive to keep, Porter says, so they’re only used for release programs sponsored by the government.

It’s working It looks like these flies are taking hold. Types of flies released in Gainesville a few years ago have been spotted attacking fire ants here in the Tampa Bay area.

The program’s goal is to keep fire ants in check by introducing something they just don’t naturally have in America: an enemy.

So, what do you think? Is this a smart idea? Or is it a risky experiment with nature? Let us know by posting a comment below.

Connect with 10 Connects multi-media journalist Grayson Kamm on Twitter as @graysonkamm, by e-mail at this link, or on AOL Instant Messenger as screen name GraysonConnects.

Grayson Kamm, 10 Connects

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