While walking Prissy this afternoon, I spotted numerous fire ant beds along the side of the road. Those little suckers are everywhere! South American fire ants entered the United States through the Port of Mobile in the early 20th century. When I was growing up in central Georgia, we didn’t have fire ants, but we had to watch out for them when we visited my grandmother is south Alabama. Now they’re all over the Southeast.
Anyway, I wondered aloud (yes, I talk to the dog) how long it would take for fire ants to come up against a natural enemy. And it turns out they have, big time — Texas researchers have introduced a fly species from the ants’ home in South America that turns the ants into ZOMBIES!
Ironically, the ants don’t eat brains; their brains are eaten by the flies.
The flies “dive-bomb” the fire ants and lay eggs. The maggot that hatches inside the ant eats away at the brain, and the ant starts exhibiting what some might say is zombie-like behavior.
“At some point, the ant gets up and starts wandering,” said Rob Plowes, a research associate at UT.
The maggot eventually migrates into the ant’s head, but Plowes said he “wouldn’t use the word ‘control’ to describe what is happening. There is no brain left in the ant, and the ant just starts wandering aimlessly. This wandering stage goes on for about two weeks.”
About a month after the egg is laid, the ant’s head falls off and the fly emerges ready to attack any foraging ants away from the mound and lay eggs.
Plowes said fire ants are “very aware” of these tiny flies, and it only takes a few to cause the ants to modify their behavior.
“Just one or two flies can control movement or above-ground activity,” Plowes said. “It’s kind of like a medieval activity where you’re putting a castle under siege.”
Okay, I hate fire ants, but I am now officially grossed out. We’d better hope those flies don’t develop a taste for humans.