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Jessica Norton

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Crazy Ants!

Illustration by The Red Dress
Illustration by The Red Dress

The man showing James Morgan around the vacant assisted-living duplex pointed at the baseboards: “This is what we’re dealing with.”

In the empty room, the problem was obvious. Piles of dust covered the white baseboards like dark snow, collecting in drifts against the wall and spilling out four and five inches onto the floor. It was the same in the living room and the bathroom—mounds of black dust against tan laminate tile. But when Morgan leaned down for a closer look, he realized it wasn’t dust; it was death. The carcasses of thousands of reddish-brown ants, no more than an eighth of an inch long, heaped against the base of the wall. In Morgan’s sixteen years as an extension agent, he had never seen anything approaching the number of ants indicated by the mass of corpses on the floor.

Morgan stepped out into a mid-August morning in Albany, Georgia, and walked around the foundation of the duplex, looking for a point of entry. He surveyed the ground for ant trails, snapping reference photos with his iPhone. The humidity from the grass, damp from the prior night’s rain, was enough to fog the lens. Soon Morgan determined that the mystery ants were getting in through the back door. Now he needed to find the source.

Morgan passed a stack of brush and a woodpile, both covered with ants, and entered a shed on the edge of a wooded area, about 150 feet from the duplex. The shed was filled with old refrigerators, stoves, rusty pieces of tin, and forgotten lumber. Morgan pulled out some of the metal and wood and quickly jumped back as thousands of the insects swarmed out.

Outside the shed, Morgan again looked for a trail. Most Southerners are familiar with Argentine ants, which travel in tight lines, following a path of pheromones from one place to the other. But these ants staggered about randomly, moving in crazy, drunken zigzags across the grass.

Until Morgan knew exactly what he was dealing with, he couldn’t do anything to get the ants under control. So he scooped up a vial of the dead insects and sent the tiny corpses, along with the reference photos, to the University of Georgia’s Griffin Experimental Station. And he waited.

Two days later, the mailer containing Morgan’s vial of dead ants joined the stacks of insect samples on the desk of Daniel Suiter, a professor of entomology in the University of Georgia’s Department of Entomology. Morgan’s package was a priority. For years, Suiter had been watching a swarming ant species called “tawny crazy ants”—named for their reddish-brown color and erratic foraging patterns—spread across the Gulf Coast. These ants formed colonies estimated to contain between 15 and 20 billion ants per acre—so large and dense that their clusters can short out electrical boxes. Suiter knew it was only a matter of time before the tawnys hit Georgia.

But even using a high-powered microscope, Suiter could not be certain that Morgan’s ants were the same as the Gulf Coast invaders. Identification this specific, down to the species, requires a lifetime of training because the differences between the 12,761 classified ant species are, well, tiny, in both size and magnitude. So Suiter, a generalist, packed the ants back into their vial and mailed them to the Mississippi Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University. There, taxonomist Joe MacGown noted that Morgan’s ants were wingless and hairy—their thick, barbed hairs growing in pairs were characteristic of the genus Nylandaria, and the smaller, finer hairs on the middle of the body cut the field to only two exotic species. The tawny, orangish-red coloration helped him narrow the species to fulva—Nylandaria fulva, an invasive ant from South America. MacGown also read Morgan’s description of the ants’ behavior. The massive colony size coupled with the ants’ rapid and fitful movement indicated that these ants were indeed tawnys.

So how did an ant get to Georgia from South America?

Scientists believe that the tawny crazy ant quickly became a dominant part of local wildlife in South America, especially in Colombia, where it spread disastrously, causing damage to the area’s ecology and agriculture. The United States has a huge appetite for South American coffee, bananas, sugarcane, and building materials, and a tiny ant could easily stow away on a massive U.S.-bound freighter without being detected.

The first significant populations of tawnys are believed to have landed in the U.S. around 1990. Hundreds promptly took over the second floor of a Miami hospital. They were soon spotted on the University of Miami campus “foraging on sidewalks and running up and down tree trunks,” according to a paper published in Transactions of the American Entomological Society in 2000. From there, the ants spread into the Everglades National Park, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Sarasota, and up and down the Florida coast. In 2002 they were discovered in an industrial complex about fourteen miles outside of Houston. The discovery was made by a pest-control professional named Tom Rasberry, and in the region, the insects took Rasberry’s name. By 2013 the Rasberry crazy ants could be found in twenty-four Texas counties.

These ants spread with the ebb and flow of human traffic. Because they nest in existing structures, piles of debris, and potted plants instead of outdoor hills and tunnels, people unwittingly pack them up with the moving van. In fact, according to entomologists at the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, human traffic is probably how the tawnys ended up in Mississippi. Then Louisiana.

By the end of 2010, Georgia and Alabama were the only two Gulf Coast–area states unoccupied. Of course, by the time Morgan showed up at the nursing home in Albany, that had changed.

Tawny crazy ants have no natural predators in North America. Fortunately for Atlanta and most of North Georgia, our winters are probably too cold for this tropical ant. But in cities like Albany, the farthest north that tawnys have been sighted in such great numbers, there’s nothing in nature to hold them in check. Their multi-queened colonies enable them to reproduce rapidly, spreading over the landscape and crowding out native ants and other insects from food resources. Scientists now believe crazy ants use venom to kill fire ants, a South American species that invaded the South in the 1930s.

Because tawny crazy ants do not build their own nests but rather exploit preexisting cavities and debris-filled areas, undisturbed spaces are a haven, vulnerable only to insecticides—most of which have little effect on the tiny interlopers. Standard professional pesticides will keep the ants at bay for a month or two at most, but they don’t kill the colony. According to Rasberry, exterminators in Texas had to apply for a special exemption from the EPA to use fipronil, because at the time it was the only insecticide that could stop the tawnys. (It’s still the most effective.)

As with most insects, cleaning up trash and loose debris is the first line of defense against the tawnys. So Morgan asked the owners of the nursing home to pick up the brush piles and to look into removing the stack of wood behind the duplex. He also suggested filling the cracks in the concrete foundations and installing door sweeps to make sure the ants stayed out of living areas.

Unfortunately, cleaning up isn’t enough. To keep these ants under control, it’s not just the yard that must be treated, but the surrounding area as well. Without chemicals, that would mean clear-cutting the forest. Instead, the nursing-home owners sprayed insecticides around the foundations, moved the woodpile, and crossed their fingers. “It’s been over a month,” Morgan says. “They haven’t asked me to come back.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.

Athens comes alive when school’s in session

In 1801 Daniel Easley sold the 633 acres of wilderness that eventually would become the University of Georgia to John Milledge for $4,000. In the years that followed, the city of Athens sprung up on chunks of the land that were sold off by university trustees to finance academic buildings. Athens evolved into a center of textile manufacturing, and wealthy plantation owners and aristocrats flocked to the city to educate their offspring and enjoy the culture and society encouraged by the university.

Now, just as then, Athens is a product of the unique symbiosis between town and college. It sits at the intersection of its own history and the vibrant indie-rock grittiness that gives the modern city much of its flavor. It’s a place that values its individuality but breathes in and out with the seasons of the university; Athens certainly isn’t dead during semester breaks and holidays, but it feels empty and expectant, as if waiting for students to return. And when they do come back, and downtown fills with hipsters in flannel and sorority girls in improbably high heels, the Classic City feels most alive.

Where to find the best…

Coffee shop for studying
Two Story Coffeehouse
The first floor of this converted two-story home in Five Points is perfect for those who like to study amid the warm buzz of conversation and coffee grinders. But serious academics head upstairs: Vintage desks, floor pillows, and a whiteboard turn the space into a haven for last-minute test prep. 1680 South Lumpkin Street, 706-850-5422

Coffee shop for coffee
Hendershot’s
Mismatched furniture, exposed brick, and tabletops crafted out of reclaimed wooden doors are all part of an atmosphere that invites you to curl up with a steaming latte and a novel—or linger to listen to live music. 237 Prince Avenue, 706-353-3050

Brunch
Mama’s Boy Restaurant
In addition to a down-home atmosphere—orange juice served in canning jars, chandeliers made of recycled bottles—Mama’s Boy serves the best biscuits in Athens and has a following of breakfast devotees to prove it. 197 Oak Street, 706-548-6249

Place to go for dinner when your parents are paying
Last Resort Grill
Linen-draped tables and a quietly sophisticated menu filled with progressive twists on Southern favorites—salmon and grits, anyone?—made with seasonal and local food make this former music venue a favorite for celebrations and dinners when Mom and Dad are in town. 174–184 West Clayton Street, 706-549-0810

Dinner—when you’re paying
The Grit
An Athens staple with good reason. The Grit’s inexpensive vegetarian fare and decadent (but mostly vegan!) desserts served in charmingly quirky dining rooms convert even the most die-hard carnivore. Plus, heaping portions mean dinner usually provides enough leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. 199 Prince Avenue, 706-543-6592

Essential place to take out-of-town friends
The 40 Watt Club
The legendary home base for many of Athens’s most famous acts—including Pylon, R.E.M., the B-52s, and Neutral Milk Hotel. 285 West Washington Street, 706-549-7871

This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue.

UGA students test ways to reduce food-borne illnesses

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The splintered plywood sign with “Retail Meat Sale” hand painted in red and black capitals. The black arrow underneath pointing up the sidewalk. The squat brick building.

Every Friday, just off College Station road, a flurry of skepticism and confusion is the most likely reaction from onlookers who don’t know that it’s all part of UGA’s Meat Science Technology Center Store. But the funny thing about being in the store is the way everyone’s eyes skim right over all the things that make the retail space not a store. The uphill corridor that leads to classrooms. The processing area clearly visible through the freezer doors. The chicken wire-topped freezer case covered with warnings printed on colored paper: “Experimental Study,” “NOT for Human Consumption,” and “Product in this case is NOT for sale.”

Those signs aren’t just for decoration. Although the chicken wire case is empty now, the store’s manager, Ryan Crowe, says he plans to fill the case with meat slated for a shelf-life study. Crowe explains that the operation is a four-year research project for the United States Department of Agriculture. He and his students, under UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in the department of Animal and Dairy Science, are testing new ways to reduce food-borne illness: spraying meat with an anti-microbial agent before sending it through tenderizers. He tells me later that the tenderized steaks are the ones that will go into the shelf-life case in the store’s retail area.

The double doors just down the hall from the retail area lead into a whole different world. Red, white, and black hard hats hang on pegs over chain mail aprons. Crowe, the manager, hands me a hair net—everyone wears one, even Crowe, who is bald—and a dryer-warmed lab coat.

The room we walk into has walls that are blanketed with the same crinkly white plastic that covers cheap refrigerators. And it’s refrigerator cold—the alcohol thermometer on the wall reads 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Crowe nods at me and points to a sign above a sink near the door. “Wash up, please. You might have touched something.”

It smells like the grocery store steak case, which makes sense, considering the two bathtub-sized, stainless-steel containers are filled with beef trimmings. Student workers feed shovelfuls of hand-sized meat chunks into an industrial grinder. Crowe isn’t quite shouting, but he has to raise his voice to be heard over the low mechanical hum of the grinder.

The meat that is currently being pulverized into fat red and white caterpillars comes largely from animals raised for teaching and research by UGA. The University maintains herds of both pigs and cattle, with facilities that accommodate a 45 sow teaching herd, 200 brood cows, and between 200 and 300 steers.

If the meat passes USDA inspection, it is parceled into red, one-pound bags, frozen, and sold in the retail area out front. Today, the meat hasn’t been inspected and the red bags are marked NOT FOR SALE. Students box it up and carry it across the hall to the blast freezer, where it waits under a cardboard sign marked “Custom Exempt,” right across from the industrial wire shelving filled with whole hog carcasses, split in half and frozen solid.

The retail store itself came into being in 2000 or 2001, although Dr. Dean Pringle, the undergraduate coordinator for the Animal and Dairy Science program, says there was retail that happened earlier. The money from sales is funneled back into the Meat Sciences program as a way to defray costs.

“In today’s environment, a hog that we kill is probably worth $210,” Pringle said. “So if I’m going to use four hogs or five hogs in class, that’s a thousand bucks right there.”

In the industrially-clean back hallway, it is easy to forget that all the work that happens here is funneled into the freezer cases out front. But as I walk back out into the warmth of the retail area, I am reminded that, despite the experimental signs and the hallway classrooms, the Meat Science Technology Center Store is just that: a store.

A little boy charges around the space, opening and closing the freezer case doors.

“Can I hold that? Can I hold that Mommy?” he asks repeatedly. Finally, his mother hands him a chub of ground sausage. He runs over to the shopping basket and dumps the frozen sausage in, then flaps his hands back and forth in surprise. “My hands are all cold!” he shrieks.

As I leave, I ask the checkout clerks about their bestselling product. “Definitely the bacon,” “Yeah, the bacon,” they say, grinning.

UGA Meat Science Technology Center Store
425 River Rd.
Athens, Ga. 30602
The store is open Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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