Friday, June 27, 2008

Entomology corner

Sorry for the haitus - I've been off finishing one job, planning to fake it as a science journalist and getting a new job.

Today it's entomology time:the bees may be disappearing (So Long and Thanks for All the Flowers?), but Texans have the charmingly named Crazy Raspberry Ant

They can't pollinate worth a damn, but they can kill computers. Actually, according to Tom Raspberry, the pest control expert for whom they were named, the ants ruin computers by creating shorts:

"I think they go into everything and they don't follow any kind of structured line," said Rasberry. "If you open a computer, you would find a cluster of ants on the motherboard and all over. You'd get 3,000 or 4,000 ants inside and they create arcs. They'll wipe out any computer."

Scott Solomon, "The Explainer" at Slate explains how the ant's own communication system compounds the problem:
"When an ant is shocked or electrocuted, it releases a chemical alarm pheromone that attracts its nestmates, triggering a cascade that results in a buildup of dead worker ants that can cause further problems for electronics."

As of May last month the ants had already caused problems with a chemical plant, a sewage station and several fire alarms. The have also been spotted at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Normal extermination methods don't seem to work on these particular ants - each colony has multiple queens, all of whom have to be eradicated to kill the colony. What's more, the ants seem to be channeling Henry V and will use their dead fellows as a bridge to avoid pesticides.

Little is known about this ant at the moment. The are thought to have arrived in Texas in 2002, possibly via cargo ship. Texas A&M PhD student and urban entomologist Jason Meyers is now the world expert on this species. I just hope he's backing up his computer.