NASHVILLE (TSU News Service) – They look very much like ordinary ants. They are between a tenth and a fourth of an inch but are very aggressive when disturbed and cause a powerful sting that can kill domestic animals and wildlife as well as destroy crops.
Fire ants clamp their jaws on their prey and sting repeatedly, leaving blotchy, burning, itching sores and tiny blisters. Scratching just makes it worse.
But wait, there’s an avenger — the fire-ant decapitating fly. Almost a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a program introducing phorid flies, a native predator. The fly has snatched more than a few heads off while turning a few.
The BBC became aware of the research on these ant invaders taking place at TSU’s Otis L. Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville and recently sent a film crew to document what is going on in this area known as the “Nursery Capital of the World.”
The segment featuring the fire ants will air on BBC’s “Nature’s Weirdest,” a program that examines some of the strangest natural events on the planet. The production crew selected the Center because of the groundbreaking research-taking place.
“We have been traveling the world documenting odd and spectacular events in the natural world,” said Luke Hollands, producer and researcher with the network. “One of the segments we wanted to document while here in the states was the fire-ant invasion and the methods used to combat the advance of the ants across the southern states. TSU is leading the research in the Middle Tennessee while helping the local nursery industry.”
According to Dr. Jason Oliver, research associate professor at the McMinnville research center, fire ants first came to the United States by accident in the 1930’s via cargo ships from South America and have since colonized in the southern and southwestern U.S. by hitchhiking on nursery stock and sod.
“The research we’re conducting is not so much to eradicate the fire ant population but to control it,” said Dr. Oliver. “ Research shows that the flies (phorids) disrupt ants from foraging for food and even better, shuts down mating swarms.”
While the ants are originally from South America, so too are their natural predator, the parasitic phorid flies. The flies can detect a chemical fire ants use to communicate called pheromones. The flies use the ant alarm or trail pheromones to find their host and lay their eggs on the ant’s body. Fly larvae develop inside the ant’s head, which falls off when the adult fly emerges.
“It truly is one of the strangest events in nature to control an invasive species,” added Hollands.
The program will air in Great Britain on the BBC network later this fall, but is not yet on the lineup for BBC America.
Department of Media Relations
Rick DelaHaya: 615.963.5312
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With more than 9,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university and is a comprehensive, urban, coeducational, land-grant university offering 38 undergraduate, 22 graduate and seven doctoral programs. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as the Number One University in the state by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912 Tennessee State University celebrates 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.
TSU Quick Facts
Motto: Think, Work, Serve Established: June 19, 1912 Type: Public, HBCU Endowment: $41.7 million Chancellor: John Morgan President: Dr. Glenda Baskin Glover Faculty: 431 Enrollment: 8775 Location: Nashville, Tennessee, United States Campus: Urban, 500 acres (2 km²) Former names: Tennessee A&I State Normal School for Negroes (1912); Tennessee A&I State Normal College (1925); Tennessee A&I State University (1951); Tennessee State University (1968) Colors: Reflex Blue and White Nickname: Tigers Athletics: National Collegiate Athletic Association Affiliations: Ohio Valley Conference Web site: www.tnstate.edu Phone: 615-963-5000
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