Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Superswarms

I have just watched one of those great BBC natural history TV programs; Superswarms. This program, shown on TV1, showed how the combined 'intelligence' of large numbers of more simple individuals can overcome problems far beyond the ability of individuals.

The ants, as usual, impressed me with their co-ordination of millions of individuals by pheromone (chemical) communication to act as a whole; in some sense in a way likened to the workings of a human brain.

The Fire Ants shown managed to survive flooding by creating a raft of their own bodies working together and as the raft approached safe dry land they formed a pontoon bridge in a finger of rafting ants reaching out for safety.

You may think that such exotic species are not to be found in New Zealand. It is true that Fire Ants are not in New Zealand. They are invading many parts of the world spread by travelling on transport and materials that we import and export. They have spread from the rainforest to invade the USA and Australia amongst other places. Fire Ants have been found in New Zealand in the past. Luckily MAF Biosecurity have so far been able to expend large resources to succeed in eradicating the incursions before they have become established. However, other invasive species have been able to become established here and eradication is not now not an option; Argentine and Darwin Ants are the most common and most invasive of these now established pests.

The Superswarms of Fire Ants were shown in the program causing havoc in electrical equipment where they 'attack' circuits such as those found in computers, switchboards, and other equipment containing circuit boards. Their antennae are sensitive to electrical currents and the ants cause shorts between exposed connections as they attack them. Argentine Ants and others are also well known to behave in the same way and as they spread across New Zealand are more and more likely to disrupt our sensitive equipment.

I was contacted just today by a lady in Auckland who had been experiencing trouble with ants causing problems in the electronics of the gate opening system at the entrance to her home. I was able to advise her how to use a combination of baiting to reduce the colony, spraying to prevent ants entering the area of the electronics box (but not spraying the electronics) and use of slow release granules to eradicate the nests and prevent ants setting up home close to the affected gate.

New Zealand is not isolated from the advance of pest species across the globe. New Zealand is more sensitive to the invasion of many of these pests because of the unique ecosystems that have developed in isolation here over the past millennia. Argentine Ants may stop your gate opening system working properly but they are also a threat to our native insects and other invertebrates, our native birds and the diversity of natural New Zealand. To control these invasive superswarms we must not underestimate their combined intelligence. To eradicate ants, think like an ant colony not an ant.

What is smaller than an ant's mouth?
An ants dinner.

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