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Entomologist David Williams examines image of fire ant containing cyst of microbial pathogen Thelohania solenopsae: Link to photo information
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New Discoveries Could Help Manage Red Imported Fire Ants

By Jim Core
February 10, 2003

Recent findings from the Agricultural Research Service's fire ant research team in Florida could help find new, environmentally friendly ways to control these invasive pests that now infest millions of acres across the southern United States.

The latest findings are part of ongoing research to control the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), which was accidentally introduced into the United States from South America in 1929. It inflicts painful stings to humans and causes ecological damage by out- competing native ants, especially at construction sites and other areas where the soil is disturbed.

David Williams, who heads ARS fire ant research at the Center for Medical and Veterinary Entomology (CMAVE) in Gainesville, Fla., is searching for potential viruses and other biological controls against the fire ant. One of these is a parasitic ant from Argentina and Brazil, Solenopsis daguerrei, which Williams and colleagues are studying under quarantine at Gainesville.

This parasitic ant drains the colony's strength. Studies found that mound densities were reduced by 33 percent in fire ant colonies with the parasitic ant, and the number of fire ant queens was reduced by 47 percent in parasitized colonies.

Another potential biocontrol is the pathogen Thelohania solenopsae, discovered by CMAVE scientists in the United States in 1996. The single-cell protozoan parasite from South America reduces the queen’s weight, causing her to lay fewer eggs. Entomologist David Oi has discovered a new spore type of T. solenopsae that could lead to better ways to transmit the pathogen into colonies.

Insect pathologist Roberto Pereira recently discovered a disease he named yellow head disease, thought to be caused by a protozoan from the genus Mattesia. The protozoan was present in 34 percent of sites and eight percent of nests studied in Florida. Its potential as a biocontrol is still being investigated.

Read more about this and other fire ant research in the February 2003 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.