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Researcher's comparison on fire ant food habits helping to find answers on control

Courtesy Texas A&M University Dept. of Entomology

Entomology Associate Professor Dr. Micky Eubanks' research is taking a global angle as he investigates the diet and foraging habits of fire ants in the United States and Argentina.

Fire ants are invasive species in the United States and native to Argentina.

For more than two years, his NSF-funded research team, which includes PhD Students Paul Lenhart and Alison Bockoven, and postdoctoral research associate Shawn Wilder, has been determining where fire ants forage and what they eat in the United States and in Argentina.

Eubanks found that fire ants in the United States are strongly attracted to sugar resources in trees and other plants. He said the source of the sugar comes from either extrafloral nectar or from honeydew produced by insects feeding on the plants. Fire ants in the United States supplement their prey diet with these plant-produced sugars.

The results Eubanks recorded in the United States were compared to similar trials that were conducted by his researchers in Argentina. The fire ants in Argentina were not feeding on the sugar-based sources in the trees and plants as in North America, but feed only on prey that they catch.

Eubanks said that although ants were commonly found on trees and other plants in Argentina, the ants are almost never fire ants. Instead, other species of ants were found on trees. He observed that most of the fire ants fed on protein-rich prey that they caught on the ground.

Why were the fire ants in Argentina not after the sugar-based resources in the trees? Eubanks said that the arboreal, or tree living, ants in the region were very competitive toward fire ants. Most of the arboreal ants would defend their resources, forcing fire ants to forage for food only on the ground.

The comparisons Eubanks and his team are doing will allow other researchers to better understand what areas and which seasons fire ants will thrive and whether they prefer sugar-based or protein-based food sources. This in turn will help researchers design more attractive insecticide baits for controlling fire ants for homes and businesses.

The ultimate goal of this research is to help make a much more efficient bait that is more of a sugar-based bait that the ants may prefer more than baits that currently contain protein or lipids to attract fire ants. More attractive baits could ultimately help cut fire ant control costs by millions, he said.