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UNITS Exclusive: Crazy Ants

As it turns out, ants marching two-by-two was really low-balling it.

By Frank Mauck

Kim Bockover, Property Manager for the Barrington Group in Southwestern Florida, first noticed them in the rear of the property. Farthest from the entrance of the horseshoe-shaped community of 14 buildings, the tiny pests had made their first incursion across enemy lines. 

The crazy ant siege had begun.

Twelve months later, the ants had inundated nearly all of the 12-acre property, a mixture of owner-occupied condominiums and rental apartments abutting a nature preserve. 

“When I first saw them, I thought they were just ants,” says Bockover, who, prior to her career in property management, was an U.S. Army environmental health technician (read: Military pest control), a health inspector for Maryland and worked for the National Restaurant Association’s Public Health Division writing manuals for conducting restaurant inspections. Needless to say, she is not what one would call a “layperson.”

She began a traditional treatment regimen for the invaders, but they were back in full force just three days later. 

“They would keep coming in droves, like an army invasion during World War II,” says Bockover. “It seemed like the ants were playing a strategic game and I was not only losing, I was at my wit’s end.” 

Know Thy Enemy

Tawny crazy ants, also known as Raspberry crazy ants (not for their color, but for Houston-based exterminator Tom Raspberry, who first drew attention to the problem in Texas in 2002), is an invasive species whose workers display quick, erratic behavior when searching for food, meriting the sobriquet “crazy.” Like many of their kin in the insect world, they don’t fly (or crawl) solo. Their colonies are polygynous, meaning they have multiple queens (as many as 40 per colony in the case of this species). It makes treating infestations orders of magnitude more complicated, in what is already a challenging species to address. 

“There are 25 to 30 species of pest ants in the United States; we’ve figured out bait for most of them,” says Ron Harrison, Technical Director for Orkin in Atlanta, who has been involved with pest control for 30 years. “We just don’t have one yet for crazy ants because they feed on different things different times of the year.”

Crazy ants have now been reported in Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia. “They spread through commerce,” Harrison says. They are transported to new environs in the same way as many other invasive species make headway in a new environment: By hitching a ride.

Barrington Group community in southwestern Florida. Each building at the affected Barrington Group community in southwestern Florida contains 4, 6 or 8 apartment homes along a nature preserve, that limited their ability to use harsh chemicals as treatment against the crazy ants. 

Calling For Reinforcements

“Those of us who have dealt with them first-hand understand the extreme stress this plague carries with it,” Bockover says. “One at a time I had residents with hundreds of thousands of ants at their door and in their home and no amount of treatment was taking them away. I did not think they were ever going to go away.”

As if encountering three-foot-high piles of dead crazy ants along the lanais wasn’t bad enough, word started to spread that the community was suffering from a crazy ant infestation. “This sort of word-of-mouth was actually worse than Chinese drywall and mold all wrapped into one,” Bockover says. “And while the renters could move, the homeowners weren’t going anywhere. The calls from renters and homeowners alike were not going to go away. Something had to be done.”

As she continued to investigate potential solutions, Bockover uncovered an article about crazy ant research happening at the University of Florida. “It was a long shot, but we had nothing to lose but residents at this point,” she says. “So we emailed them about our plight and asked for their help.”

Within 24 hours, the university had responded and expressed a desire to visit the community. After a three-hour drive and some investigative work, University of Florida invited the community to take part in their study, including a reduction program.

Behind Enemy Lines

The university met with the community’s contracted pest control and lawn care companies, an arborist and a member of the local extension office (part of an educational agricultural network). Each party had a role in the process and would have to work as a team given the complex management strategy developed for addressing this infestation. “The grass couldn’t be treated without also treating the trees and bushes; the leaves of certain trees had to be treated at certain times of the year because crazy ants’ diets vary by the season,” Bockover says.

The university then implemented homemade baiting systems, drawing them to the community to feed on miniscule amounts of bait during a 12-week period. The idea was to feed the ants with just enough bait so as not to kill them, but to ensure they returned to the non-foraging members of the colony (like the queen) with enough to cause her permanent, irreversible harm.  

Two years later, Bockover is proud to report that the community is 100 percent free of crazy ants. “Results came slow at first, with the university originally projecting a 30 percent to 50 percent reduction requiring continuous care to keep them at bay. The university actually trained the pest control company on how to bait and monitor and we even adjusted our budget to include long-term crazy ant control.”

Also included in the budget are monies set aside for fire ant management, who have since returned following the failed crazy ant assault. And, to underscore how badly crazy ants can drive property managers cuckoo, Bockover has only one thing to say: “We love you fire ants!”

For more on crazy ants, including how Bockover communicated with residents and tips for working with your pest control partner, check out the full story in the May issue of units magazine, which mails May 13.