When Solenopsis invicta, also known as the red introduced fire ant, was first discovered in East Texas in the 1970s, the stakes were high. Ever since they made their way from Brazil to Alabama in the ballast of a ship a few decades ago, the insects have resisted every effort to slow their long journey west. Experts predicted that they would cause untold damage to the Texas ecosystem.
In response, the counties created quarantine zones that quickly doubled and then tripled. The Texas Department of Agriculture treated over half a million acres with a chemical called MV-678 that was supposed to make the next generation of fire ants sterile and lazy. (This did not happen.) Landowners doused fire ants with diesel fuel, convinced that this was an effective method of controlling them. (It’s not.) August 1988 magazine cover Texas Monthly declared the fire ant “Public Enemy #1”.
“People were excited about it,” said Robert Puckett, an entomologist at Texas A&M University who studies fire ants. “This was the first time that an invasive ant species had swept the state.” But this was perhaps the only intrusion of an uninvited guest.
In the decades since the arrival of the fire ant, millions of feral pigs have run across Texas, tearing up farmland and spreading disease. Zebra mussels have littered our lakes and rivers. The beautiful green beetle, the emerald ash moth, has spent the last six years or so establishing itself in North Texas, where it will likely wipe out the ash population. The recent explosion of the voracious lionfish population in the Persian Gulf has serious implications for our coral reefs. Spotted lanternflies, apple snails, syrex tree wasps, sponge moths, brown marble stink bugs, giant African snails—the list of unwanted arrivals goes on and on.
Yet these radical changes in the biosphere did not make much of an impression on the Texans. For most of us, fire ants have always been here, and they seem as Texas as rattlesnakes or bobcats, just another notoriously wild state with red fangs, claws, and lower jaws. “The fire ants themselves haven’t changed much,” Puckett said of the insects’ stay in Texas. “But our reaction to them has changed. They just became part of our reality.”
While many of us can ignore all these changes in our environment, other animals don’t have the luxury of indifference. Largely due to habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and competition from invasive species, native creatures are suffering. Many bird populations, including the eastern meadow lark and the shrike, have declined by at least 65 percent since the 1960s. Attwater’s meadow fowl, black-footed ferrets, and monarch butterflies – all native species – have declined sharply. The Texas horned lizard, once the state’s ubiquitous reptile, is now captive bred; obviously shooting blood out of the eyes is not the evolutionary advantage it once was. There are about 76,000 native species in Texas. Nearly 1,300 of them are in decline or worse.
The landscape in which these animals live is also changing. Texas has lost 90 percent of its black earth and coastal prairies. The vast undulating plains of large bluestem and oriental hamagras that once defined vast stretches of the state are now covered in agricultural, residential, and commercial buildings or St. Augustine’s Grass. The giant salvinia, a water fern native to southern Brazil, has almost suffocated Lake Caddo. Shiny privet replaces native oaks and yaupon holly.
None of this is inevitable; we could together choose to restore the greater part of Texas that once was rather than mourn it. And many are trying to do just that. When Flower Mound resident Katherine Wells moved to Texas twelve years ago, she fell in love with the beauty of her native landscape. A member of the Native Plant Society of Texas and a Texas naturalist, she converted her small piece of land into a certified wildlife habitat and monarch way station, gradually adding native species from ground cover to prehistory. “I think the pendulum has swung towards reclaiming the earth and respecting it,” Wells said. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to protect and rule my little corner of the world.”
However, even when a few green people wrest control from the invaders, the mighty fire ant may have its opponents. Twenty years ago, another ant from Brazil made its way to Texas.Nylanderia fulva, or yellowish brown crazy ant. It also spreads rapidly across the state, and while it does not sting, it swarms with such intensity that it can destroy electrical equipment and kill birds, lizards, scorpions and snakes. What’s more, it releases formic acid, which makes it immune to fire ant stings. “Crazy Ants Defeat Fire Ants” texas scientist magazine stated a few years ago; aliens have already begun to push fire ants along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Like us in the eighties, the Texans turned to science to exterminate a hostile invader species. Homeowners are using increasingly sophisticated pesticide treatments to combat the spread of crazy ants. University of Texas researchers are studying a naturally occurring fungus that could wipe out their colonies.
This, of course, would benefit the fire ant, which is not affected by the fungus. But maybe that’s okay. Perhaps the Texans would rather stay with the devil they know.
This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of the magazine. Texas Monthly with the title “Six Feet Over Texas”.Subscribe today.