HOUSTON Every few days, Joe Stuckey unleashes chemicals on the legions of tiny ants that invade his home and swarm over his 40-acre property south of Houston. Once they die, he scoops up them up by the shovel-full. Then he repeats the ritual.
"It's literally a huge problem," said Stuckey, a Houston environmental attorney.
Stuckey is one of several landowners who allow researchers to use their property to learn more about tawny crazy ants, a nuisance spreading rapidly across the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Originally from South America, the ants were discovered in Texas in 2002, and there have been confirmed sightings in at least four other states - Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. They are "within four miles of Alabama right now," according to research scientist Joe MacGown at the Mississippi Entomological Museum.
The good news: Tawny crazy ants do not sting or bite like fire ants, which have been around since the 1970s.
The bad news: Tawny ants multiply very quickly and like to make their home in warm, tight spaces including around electrical equipment, under floorboards and in car engines.
Large swarms of the ants have been found in the mall area of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, although they have not done any significant damage, said NASA Houston Facilities Management and Operations Chief Shelia Powell in an email.
"We are principally concerned about the possible damage to infrastructure such as electronics, employees' automobiles, and our facilities," Powell said.
NASA uses a local extermination company, which has come up with a temporary strategy using frequent application of multiple products to kill them, she said.
Still, not enough is known about their physiology to predict how far north or inland they will travel, and how best to eliminate them, experts said.
"You almost have to see it to believe what a nuisance these can become," said Robert Puckett, an associate research scientist at Texas A&M University. "I've been in people's houses where they show me trash bags full of ants they've swept up."
Diana Tahtinen, who owns a home south of Houston, estimates having spent about $1,000 a year for pest control during the last three years of battling the ants on her land.
"It has a huge impact on your quality of life," she said.
The ants hitch rides in landscaping and building materials and even on shoes or cars, which is common for invasive species, said David Oi, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although financial losses have not officially been tallied, Tom Rasberry, a Houston exterminator credited by local experts with discovering the ants in the U.S., believes that the costs over a decade of damage could be in the hundreds of millions.
State and federal funds to combat the ants have been slow in coming, Puckett said. But Texas A&M has several projects in the works to learn more about the ants, thanks partly to state funding formerly reserved for fire ants that has now been opened up to tawny crazy ants.
Traditional extermination chemicals do not seem to work.
"You can spray and it will kill tens of thousands, but they come back," said Stuckey. "If you took a restaurant-sized pepper jug and poured it on the floor, that's how thick they are."
"This year's been the worst ever."
(Editing by Greg McCune and Gunna Dickson)