Apr. 26, 2000 LUBBOCK – There’s a fungus among us, and researchers at Texas Tech University are proving it to be fatal to fire ants around the state. Entomologists in the plant and soil science department say the deadly fungal bait has been extremely effective in killing fire ants in the Texarkana area as well as at other field test sites.
Texas Tech scientists began working on a biological control for fire ants 10 to 12 years ago, said Harlan Thorvilson, Ph.D., professor of entomology. The project isolated a common soil fungus that attacks only insects. To see if the fungus bait formulation was responsible for killing ants, Texas Tech scientists genetically altered the fungus to include an enzyme that indicated the presence of the fungus in dead ants.
“We then found a way to encapsulate the vegetative material in the fungus, called mycelia, into a pellet. We were able to dry down the pellet, or dehydrate it, so that they’re like Grape Nuts, then store it,” said Thorvilson. “The fungus reactivates by rehydrating it with moisture, it starts to grow nicely, starts to produce spores, and the spores are deadly to the fire ants.”
Thorvilson said Texas Tech’s main field research took place in the Texarkana area. Field trials also are set for independent sites in College Station, Gainsville, Fla., and Gulfport, Miss.
“The general idea of the fungus is to broadcast it over a field where there are many colonies. When the ants go to investigate for food, they find these pellets. They are attracted to the pellets, pick them up and deliver them to their colony. In the moist underground of the colony, the pellets rehydrate, produce spores and kill off the ants,” Thorvilson said.
According to research, the heaviest populations of fire ants in Texas are east of Interstate 35, with the longest established colonies appearing in the Houston area. Colonies closer to Lubbock and Texas Tech are located in the Midland, Abilene and San Angelo areas. Thorvilson believes the fire ants were probably brought to the West Texas area in nursery plant material.
Thorvilson said Texas Tech’s biological attack on fire ants through application of fungal bait, is just one weapon in the fight to eradicate them.
“As soon as we’re ready to bring on a commercial partner and market this product, it will be another tool in our pest management toolbox. Used in conjunction with insecticides, parasites and other means of control, we might be able to suppress them enough to alleviate some of the economic damage they cause,” Thorvilson said. He anticipates it will take an additional two years to ready the fungal bait for sale in stores.
Texas Tech, the largest research university system in West Texas, provides education and support to approximately 25,000 students. In addition, Texas Tech is the only university system in the state with a law school and a medical center on the same campus. The university’s research programs, in areas such as wind engineering, agriculture and environmental and human health, impact the lives of everyone in Texas.
CONTACT: Harlan Thorvilson, Ph.D., (806) 742-2764 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Professor of entomology, Texas Tech University, department of plant and soil science.
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