Evolution versus 'Intelligent Design' - a Beautiful Case Study on Fire Ants

Evolution versus 'Intelligent Design' - a Beautiful Case Study on Fire Ants

The following narrative is a beautiful demonstration of how natural forces work more powerfully than human attempts to micromanage them. It has all components including banned chemicals, honey bee colony collapse, widely disliked ants, government-funded efforts to keep them at bay and nature’s hammer on them. It even presents a new threat to the highest form of human ascendancy - namely innovation of electronic gadgets, toys, video games and other circuitry. Readers are warned that the words ‘intelligent design’ are broadly defined to include the activities of various central planners, environment agencies, government bureaucrats and various other demigods of contemporary society.



Fipronil is a modern pesticide that targets the central nervous system of insects. More specifically, it blocks the passage of chloride ions through the GABA receptor. The chemical does not affect humans, because its target, glutamate-gated chloride (GluCl) channel, is not present in mammals. Therefore, the discovery of the chemical (~1987) was greatly helped by modern understanding of cell biology. Fipronil was approved for use as insecticide after extensive testing between 1987-1996.

The most important effect of Fipronil is that it can act as a slow poison to kill an entire colony of bugs, and not only a few bugs on which the insecticide is sprayed. From the wiki -

Fipronil is a slow acting poison. When used as bait, it allows the poisoned insect time to return to the colony or harborage. In cockroaches, the feces and carcass can contain sufficient residual pesticide to kill others in the same nesting site. In ants, the sharing of the bait among colony members assists in the spreading of the poison throughout the colony. With the cascading effect, the projected kill rate is about 95% in three days for ants and cockroaches. Fipronil serves as a good bait toxin not only because of its slow action, but also because most, if not all, of the target insects do not find it offensive or repulsive.

Toxic baiting with fipronil has also been shown to be extremely effective in locally eliminating German wasps (commonly called yellow jackets in North America). All colonies within foraging range are completely eliminated within one week.

Readers should note that although Fipronil does not affect mammals, other vertebrates are fair game. From a paper titled -

Fipronil: environmental fate, ecotoxicology, and human health concerns

One of its main degradation products, fipronil desulfinyl, is generally more toxic than the parent compound and is very persistent. There is evidence that fipronil and some of its degradates may bioaccumulate, particularly in fish.


Fipronil is highly toxic to bees (LD50 = 0.004 microgram/bee), lizards [LD50 for Acanthodactylus dumerili (Lacertidae) is 30 micrograms a.i./g bw], and gallinaceous birds (LD50 = 11.3 mg/kg for Northern bobwhite quail), but shows low toxicity to waterfowl (LD50 > 2150 mg/kg for mallard duck).


Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder

Six years back, when we were working on the honey bee genome paper, colleagues often mentioned one strange and recent observation. You can read the wiki on colony collapse disorder:

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony abruptly disappear. While such disappearances have occurred throughout the history of apiculture, and were known by various names (disappearing disease, spring dwindle, May disease, autumn collapse, and fall dwindle disease), the syndrome was renamed colony collapse disorder in late 2006 in conjunction with a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of Western honeybee colonies in North America. European beekeepers observed similar phenomena in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, and initial reports have also come in from Switzerland and Germany, albeit to a lesser degree[5] while the Northern Ireland Assembly received reports of a decline greater than 50%.

The cause of colony collapse disorder is still not known, and everything from starvation, pathogens, mites to modern insecticides were blamed. No matter what the cause is, bees are the types of bugs you do not like to see disappear. Disappearance of bees will cause havoc to farming, because there will be less pollination and thus less food production.

Some researchers blamed Fipronil as the potential cause of colony collapse disorder.

Fipronil is one of the main chemical causes blamed for the spread of colony collapse disorder among bees. It has been found by the Minutes-Association for Technical Coordination Fund in France that even at very low nonlethal doses for bees, the pesticide still impairs their ability to locate their hive, resulting in large numbers of forager bees lost with every pollen-finding expedition. A 2013 report by the European Food Safety Authority identified fipronil as a “a high acute risk to honeybees when used as a seed treatment for maize and on July 16, 2013 the EU voted to ban the use of Fipronil on corn and sunflowers within the EU. The ban will take effect at the end of 2013.”

Also read -

BASF challenges EU ban on fipronil pesticide

German chemicals group BASF said it launched a legal challenge against the European Commission’s ban of BASF’s insecticide fipronil, imposed in July on concern its use as seed treatment is linked to declining bee populations.


The European Union in July added fipronil to its blacklist of substances suspected of playing a role in declining bee populations.

The ban follows similar EU curbs imposed in April on three of the world’s most widely-used pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, and reflects growing concern in Europe over a recent plunge in the population of honeybees critical to crop pollination and production.


Fire Ants

Let us now switch gear to a different kind of insect that nobody loves - the fire ants. Fire ants came to the USA from Brazil through trade and spread all over the southeastern states. They are found in everyone’s backyard, front yard, school playground and other places inside and around the house. Every once in a while, you come across stories like this - “Texas Boy Dead After Fire Ant Bites”.

Fire ants are usually removed by pesticides, but some people go on to take extreme measures. Do not try this at home !!


Fly Eating the Brains of Fire Ants

How to control the fire ants? Researchers and grant agencies came up with an elegant ‘natural’ solution. An entomologist named Sanford Porter observed that a type of flies go inside fire ants’ head and lay eggs there. When the eggs hatch, they eat the heads of the ants.

Absurd Creature of the Week: This Fly Hijacks an Ants Brain Then Pops Its Head Off

So Porter searched for a natural enemy that might be keeping southern populations in check. Following a tip from a colleague, he began seeking out fire ants fending off attacks from tiny flies. He gathered some of these besieged individuals and returned to the United States, where he soon began finding maggots in the ants bodies. And around about two weeks [after that] I found that the heads would fall off, he told WIRED, and lo and behold I could see the pupa inside the ants head.

The flies hed observed werent hunting the ants. They were much too small for that. Apparently not to be bothered with the stresses of parenthood, they were infesting the creatures with their young. Here, take this for me, the flies seemed to say, Ive got a lot going on in my life right now.

Heres how it works. Attracted by the smell of the fire ants alarm pheromone, the female ant-decapitating fly hovers a few millimeters from her target. When they get into just the right position, they dive in, said Porter, who is now with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. The fly has a sort of lock-and- key ovipositor, the shape of which varies widely between species, and once thats fit onto the ants body, around the legs somewhere, then what happens is that theres an internal ovipositor that looks like a hypodermic needle, and that hits probably in the membranes in between the legs, firing a tiny torpedo-shaped egg into the ant.

The following video shows the process. It is the weirdest thing that we have seen in a while!!

Bringing a bug from south America and putting into Texas was no easy task. The researchers had to make sure the flies do not become nuisance by themselves. Finally, humans found a solution to the fire ant problem, or have they?


Rasberry Crazy Ants

Nature had a different plan to take care of fire ants unlike the ‘natural’ solution introduced by humans. Enter ‘Raspberry crazy ants’. About 6-7 years back, a new kind of ants arrived in Texas from South America following the same route as originally taken by fire ants, namely trade from south America. These ants are aptly named ‘crazy ants’, because they are driving the fire ants crazy !!

Apparently, they are also driving the Texans crazy, because anyone experiencing crazy ant attack wants the fire ants back as the more humble bugs !!

A few observations about crazy ants -

(i) they do not respond to commonly used insecticides,

(ii) their colonies have more than one queens. So, it is much harder to destroy their colonies by killing one queen ant.

(iii) they grow very fast and are attracted to electronic circuits. Therefore, they can damage computer gadgets very fast.

The ‘crazy ants’ are nothing like people of USA have seen before. To understand how unusual they are, readers are encouraged to go through the following two articles -

Theres a Reason They Call Them Crazy Ants

Soon ants were spiraling up the tongues of my sneakers, onto my sock. I tried to shake them off, but nothing I did disturbed them. Before long, I was sweeping them off my own calves. I kept instinctively taking a step back from some distressing concentration of ants, only to remember that I was standing in the center of an exponentially larger concentration of ants. There was nowhere to go. The ants were horrifying as in, they inspired horror. Eventually, I scribbled in my notebook: Holy [expletive] I cant concentrate on what anyones saying. Ants all over me. Phantom itches. Scratching hands, ankles, now my left eye. Then I got in my car and left.

The 5 craziest moments from the Times feature on crazy ants


Response of Central Planners

This part is the most hilarious. The arrival of crazy ants in Texas was noticed by Mr. Tom Rasberry, who never completed anything beyond high school but knew his bugs well through his profession as an exterminator. He alerted the central planners about arrival of this new kind of ants in 2002, but they were too busy fighting the last year. Within five years, the crazy ants spread all over Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Georgia and started replacing fire ants.

Finally the central planners took notice, and the first thing they did was to write a grant. But the grant did not get approved, because -

This meeting took place on Oct. 9, 2008, just as the American econ- omy was crumbling. Six days earlier, President Bush signed over $700 billion to the new Troubled Asset Relief Program. I dont think the fed- eral government had a lot of money to spend on bugs, one task-force participant remembered. In fact, very quickly, the conversation foun- dered in a maddening Catch-22: the government preferred not to release any money to research or combat the crazy ants until it knew what species it was dealing with. The scientists insisted that they need- ed funding to figure that out.

Finally, one man spoke up. I said: You know? You all sound like a bunch of idiots, he recalls. He was 52, with a graying, bristly mustache and leathery skin, and on paper at least, he had no business being there. He wasnt a bureaucrat or a scientist. Hed never even gone to college. He was just an exterminator the kind who drives around in a truck and sprays stuff. But he was the exterminator who discovered the ants. His name was Tom Rasberry. Hed named them after himself.

That turned out to be a problem. Central planners decided to give it a different name - ‘tawny crazy ants’. For a long time, they continued this name-giving game, while the ants marched on to new territories !!

From the NY Times story -

Tom Rasberry collected samples of the ant at the Pasadena chemical plant in 2003 and sent them off to a lab at Texas A&M; to be identified. But taxonomy the process of ordering living things into species is arguably more an art than a science, and figuring out what species the ants were, and where they came from, quickly became vexing. Academics from other institutions swarmed in to debate, for example, the significance of four tiny hairs on the ants thorax. For years, they hurtled through a series of wrong answers, but the consensus eventually leaned toward a certain invasive ant, called Nylanderia pubens, which has been in Florida since the 1950s.

Rasberry was convinced this couldnt possibly be the same ant. Its just common sense, he said. His ant was ripping through Texas like a violent dust storm; their ant had been entrenched in Florida for more than 50 years, barely dispersing or causing any trouble. Why would the bug suddenly behave so differently? Rasberry began his own, amateur taxonomic investigation, spending thousands of hours out in the field or examining samples with a microscope in the back room of the Rasberrys Pest Professionals office. It was a nightmare, he told me. Hed never had any interest or aptitude for science, didnt find bugs that fascinating and hates reading. But he willed his way through the entomological research, looking for answers. (It was an obsession, his daughter, Mandy Rasberry-Ganucheau, said. For years, Rasberry would come over once a week to see his grandkids and end up talking about crazy ants.) Still, the science kept creeping toward its own conclusion. And as long as there was evidence that the ants in Texas were pubens and not something new, the government felt it was reasonable not to act. Roger E. Gold, a veteran Texas A&M; entomologist working on the species, told me that the scientific uncertainty became almost a reason for the federal government not to get involved, even as the situation in Texas grew catastrophic. The taxonomy thing was almost a joke, Gold added, if it werent so serious.

State and federal agencies have now financed a very limited amount of research, and the E.P.A. has tweaked its regulations to allow the use of a high-powered pesticide against the ant. The taxonomy question was settled only in September 2012, when scientists led by a fellow at the Smithsonian looked at the molecular sequencing of a broad range of specimens and concluded that the Rasberry crazy ant is not the same ant that was collected in Florida in the 1950s. Its Nylanderia fulva, a species native to Brazil. Rasberry, in other words, was vindicated. And yet, so many speculative plot twists and Latin names have accumulated around the ant that its still easy to get confused. A policy manager at the U.S.D.A.’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recently explained to me that because the ants in Texas are the same species pubens that has been long established in Florida, the pest has become too widespread to take effective action. In short, the ant is already out of the bag.

Then, last winter, the federal research entomologist David Oi and the researcher who led the taxonomy study, Dietrich Gotzek, complicated the story further. They gave fulva a common name, via a petitioning process administered by the Entomological Society of America. Everyone was already calling it Rasberry crazy ant, but that hardly mattered: Naming a bug after a person is strongly frowned on. Besides, Oi told me, the name was too confusing: People thought it was supposed to be the fruit. He and his colleague rechristened it the Tawny crazy ant, a name almost no one in Texas appears to use and especially not Tom Rasberry, who took Ois maneuver as a personal attack. It may sound arrogant, Rasberry told me, but I think theyre totally irritated that someone without a college degree one-upped all the Ph.D.s.


Bring back the Fipronil

Now that the real nature is on the march, humans have very few weapons to fight against it, other than those supposed to ‘damage nature and environment’. ‘Crazy ants’ do not respond to regular insecticides and therefore the big guns are needed.

Pesticide for SE Texas ‘crazy’ ants approved by EPA

Acting on a request by the Texas Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday approved a crisis exemption for use of fipronil (Termidor SC) on crazy ant infestations. The crisis exemption is in effect until the EPA rules on the state’s request for a specific exemption so the pesticide could be used for three years.

Crazy Rasberry ants, called “crazy” because of their zigzag march and named after Tom Rasberry, the Pasadena exterminator who discovered them in 2002, now infest Harris, Brazoria, Galveston, Jefferson, Liberty, Montgomery and Wharton counties.

The rice-grain-size ants, which can bite but not sting, have a penchant for infesting electrical devices and have been blamed for the failure of computers, sewage pumps and electric gate motors.

How about the bees? The beekeepers are so threatened by ‘crazy ant’ attack that colony collapse disorder appears to be minor problem in comparison.


We are not sure whether this convoluted story has any simple conclusion. Humans studied biology and came up with a poison that kills only bugs and not mammals. The pesticide was tested ‘thoroughly’ and released on to the market. It worked so well on the bugs that honey bee colonies started to disappear almost overnight. The chemical was banned, while a more ‘natural’ and benign solution to fire ant problem was introduced. In the meanwhile, nature released its own terror - crazy ant, which displaced fire ants, munched on computer circuits and threatened human civilization so much that the banned pesticide was brought back as an ‘emergency measure’.

Written by M. //