After ignoring the situation for years, the state of Texas has asked the federal government for funding to study the flood of voracious ants that have been swarming across the state, and inside computer systems, since 2002.
The ants have been causing all kinds of trouble in five Texas counties in the Gulf Coast area — even threatening critical systems at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Because of their sheer numbers, the ants are short-circuiting computers in homes and offices, and knocking systems offline in major businesses.
The insects have been dubbed Crazy Rasberry ants after Tom Rasberry, owner of Budget Pest Control in Pearland, Texas. Rasberry, who began fighting the prolific ants back in 2002, says he recently turned to the media for help because he wasn't getting any help from state or federal agencies. His plan worked.
Rasberry told Computerworld US that the Texas Department of Agriculture had been calling the Crazy Raspberry ants "unactionable". It has now changed its stance on the problem and decided to seek the research funds.
"We're in a lot better shape than we were a week ago," says Rasberry, who adds that he first approached the state for help five years ago. He says he called the Department of Agriculture and told them he would release their stance to the media. That's when they changed their stance.
"It was blackmail. I won't deny it. Something needed to be done."
Veronica Obregon, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Agriculture, says the agency sent a letter to undersecretaries at the US Department of Agriculture explaining the problem in Texas and asking for help. She says the letter notes that it's "unlikely [the problem] can be eradicated. However, it's crucial to slow its spread and reduce the numbers to a tolerable level."
Obregon says the agency does not plan to use state funding to research the ants. "I'm assuming it's because we don't have it," she says. "This is why we go to our federal partners."
Rasberry says he's just excited at the prospect of finally getting some help in battling the ants.
"If we can get some money into research to know what their reproductive cycles are, their exact food sources. If you know these things, you can develop products and baits that would at least slow them down," he says. "I don't think we'll eradicate them. They're too widespread."
Exterminators have found it nearly impossible to kill the ants. You can kill some of them — the first wave, maybe. However, there are so many more ants coming behind them, that the first wave falls dead in the insecticide and the subsequent waves merely walk on the dead bodies, keeping themselves out of the poison and safe from harm.
The ants, which are tiny and reddish, aren't native to Texas. Officials believe they came off a ship from the Caribbean, says Paul Nester, a programme specialist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. They were first spotted about six years ago.
Roger Gold, professor of entomology at Texas A&M University in College Station, says in a previous interview that in the past few years, the ants have spread in a radius of about 50 miles. And now they're moving into Houston, the fourth largest city in the country. "They're foraging for food, and they'll go into any space looking for it," he says. "In the process, they make their way into sensitive equipment."
That foraging, according to Rasberry, has meant particular trouble for computer users — individuals and companies, alike.
""I think they go into everything, and they don't follow any kind of structured line," says Rasberry. "If you open a computer, you would find a cluster of ants on the motherboard and all over. You'd get 3,000 or 4,000 ants inside, and they create arcs. They'll wipe out any computer."
The Johnson Space Center called on Rasberry several weeks ago for help in keeping the pests out of its sensitive and critical systems. Since then, Raspberry says, he has found four colonies at the NASA site, but all were small enough to control.
"We're out there almost daily," he says. "There's no evidence they've gotten inside any buildings. It will just take some vigilance to make sure they don't. If they got in there, they could pose significant problems."