December 20, 2016
Ouch- the red imported fire ant, we all know this tic-tac sized fierce biting nuisance. You probably stepped in a pile of these ants as a child or know someone who has, so you know how painful they can be. Unfortunately, this fire ant problem is not just in Florida. They have been found across the southeastern United States and even in Puerto Rico. While these are troublesome pests to people, they are even more problematic for agriculture, natural environments, and wildlife including native ant species, deer, turtles, alligators, rodents, birds, and other ground nesting animals.
Help is on the way via a natural solution…
The red imported fire ant comes from South America where a group of tiny phorid flies are its natural enemies. These host-specific flies attack and parasitize the fire ant, resulting in its death.
The fly injects its egg into the midsection of the ant, the egg hatches and the larva (maggot) lives for two to three weeks within the ant, eventually traveling to the ant’s head where it releases an enzyme which causes the head to fall off. The phorid fly maggot ingests the contents of the head capsule and then utilizes it as a pupal case.
Phorid flies have been reared at the Division of Plant Industry in partnership with the USDA since 2001 with the help of dedicated and skilled team members who attend to these flies daily. Since its start, there have been four species of phorid flies reared at DPI’s Gainesville location, each attacking different sized worker ants and active at different times.
Fire ants are collected in the field and brought back to the DPI Gainesville lab. Once in the lab, technicians place them in attack boxes which are specially designed to prompt movement of the ants allowing phorid flies to attack. Once the flies have been introduced to the attack boxes, the ants remain exposed for 48 hours allowing for maximum parasitization to take place.
Parasitized ants are distributed throughout the southeast to agricultural lands such as cattle farms and other natural areas which are then monitored for impact. While these flies are not available for distribution to the general public, the work being done helps to manage the imported fire ant numbers.
Few other organizations research the phorid fly, which makes the work done at the Division of Plant Industry so important.
Between July and September alone, 349,614 phorid flies were reared at the Gainesville location, adding to the millions reared over the past 15 years.
It is the hope that releasing phorid flies will reduce the chemical control applications used on fire ants, thus reducing harmful impacts of these pesticides on humans, wildlife, and the environment.
Let the team know!
Share your thoughts in the comments and let us know what you think about the work DPI and the USDA are doing!