Genes may hold key to fighting spread of tawny crazy ants

By edited by Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

The invasive species kills grass and plays havoc with electrical equipment.

Photo: Joe MacGown, Mississippi State University,

Researchers at Texas A&M AgriLife may have discovered a way to control the grass-killing, invasive tawny crazy ants that have been spreading through Texas and Florida — by inserting a lethal gene into their population, according to an article published by

Also known as raspberry crazy ants, the species has been spreading in Texas since at least 2002. Besides killing grass, they displace other insects and destroy electrical equipment. They can thrive both indoors and outdoors, and the supersized colonies can evade typical pest control tactics, ignoring baits and creating numerous escape routes.

Tawny crazy ants were named for their random-looking walk. The way they pass down genes to the next generation could also be described as “crazy.”

A team led by Ed Vargo, Ph.D., senior investigator of the study and professor of urban and structural entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University investigated crazy ant colonies in Texas and Florida cities. The team found that their pattern of inheritance seems to be unique among the15,000 known ant species. This unusual pattern of genetic inheritance may have helped the native Brazilian species spread in the U.S.

The team found that many crazy ant eggs have genetics that don’t fit the usual pattern. These eggs seem to disappear from the nest before they can develop. The team hypothesizes that these eggs — almost 40% — either die or are destroyed by other ants in the nest.

“There’s something about the genes and their expression that's harmful to females,” says Vargo. “We might be able to use the mechanism to drive a lethal gene into the population.”