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February 25, 2002   Email to Friend 

Debra Davis
(334) 613-4686
February 25, 2002

The mortal enemy of fire ants has gained a toehold in Alabama.

Whether this enemy ever manages to cause as much misery for the ants as it does in its native habitat in South America is anyone's guess. But one thing's for sure: Heads are rolling all over Alabama, and scientists couldn't be happier.

The pinhead-sized predator, known as the phorid fly, preys on the ants in the goriest manner imaginable. After a fly lays her eggs in a fire ant, the emerging larvae makes its way into the ant's head and then proceeds to eat out the inside of the head. Eventually, the head falls off and out comes a new fly - small wonder why some people often refer to these predators as decapitating flies.

As the new generation emerges, the ghastly cycle of egg laying and decapitation begins again.

Phorid flies were first introduced to Alabama in 1998 as part of a regional project aimed at controlling fire-ant populations throughout the South. The project is the brainchild of Dr. Samford Porter, a Florida-based USDA researcher who spent years studying the phorid fly in South America.

Curiously, the first Alabama release of phorid flies, which took place in Talladega County in 1998, failed. Nevertheless, Dr. L.C. "Fudd" Graham, coordinator of the Alabama Fire Ant Management Program, Talladega County Agent Henry Dorough, and others involved with the project pressed on with grim determination.

Subsequent releases in Macon County in 1999 and Lowndes County in 2001 were successful. In both cases, flies have been spotted well beyond their points of release.

"The flies in Macon County have spread over a 10- or 11-mile radius, which totals about a 380 square-mile area," recalls a beaming Graham.

In fact, the flies, in a manner of speaking, have come full circle, reaching the Auburn University campus where they were first hatched and harvested prior to their release in nearby Macon County - a fact Graham learned while tailgating with friends during the Auburn-Alabama game.

"Some kids with our group started asking about the phorid flies, so we went down into the woods near campus and began investigating some of the mounds for signs of the flies," he recalls with a chuckle. "And there they were."

Meanwhile, farther west in Lowndes County, the flies have spread about 3 miles from their release point. And in Talladega County, where Graham and Dorough first encountered so much difficulty, the flies seem to be flourishing. Graham attributes this to the decision to release a different kind of phorid fly known as Pseudacteon curvatus, which appears to be more cold tolerant and better suited to the hybrid fire ants common in this region of the state.

So far only one fly has been found in Houston County following a release in fall of 2000, although Graham is confident the flies eventually will gain a toehold.

In the meantime, Graham is planning additional releases in Baldwin County and possibly Walker County, depending on the availability of the flies.

Fierce as they are, phorid flies will never succeed in wiping out fire ants entirely. Instead, they make the ants' lives difficult through constant attacks.

Mortally frightened by the flies, worker ants cower in their mounds and miss out on the day-to-day foraging necessary for survival. As food sources are depleted, fire ant populations begin dropping off.

Eventually, Graham and other experts hope to use the flies in tandem with other control methods to keep ant populations at manageable levels.

The flies could be the best defense yet against imported fire ants, which escaped off a freighter in Mobile Bay more than 60 years ago and spreading throughout the South and Southwest.

Source: Dr. L.C. "Fudd" Graham, Coordinator, Alabama Fire Ant Management Project, 334-844-2563

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