Researchers use a virus to control invasive fire ants in the United States

Researchers use a virus to control invasive fire ants in the United States

For such a small insect, fire ants can be a very big problem. Invasive species of fire ants reached North America in the 1930s from Argentina and spread rapidly in southern states of the United States, which currently costs over $ 6 billion a year in financial harm. While the solution so far has been chemical pesticides, a study now suggests using a virus to address the problem.

Image credit: Flickr / Marufish.

Researchers found that a virus known as Solenopsis invicta virus 3 (SINV-3) had a major effect on red-imported anteaters. They registered a sevenfold reduction in the number of nests and a correspondingly significant reduction in the size of the nests. The study, although limited to a single species of fire ants, can have major implications for the control of this pest.

Fire ants and viruses

Chemical pesticides are the most widely used tool to deal with infestations, which are often used around homes and public spaces in several US states. But this may not necessarily be the case, the researchers argue, especially as these pesticides can be toxic and pose health risks. “Microbial agents are much safer for the environment and for humans,” David Shapiro-Ilan, editor of the journal that published the study, told Washington Post.

Viruses have been used as biocontrol agents against some pests, but not against ants. To date, only SINV-3 has been proven in the lab to cause mortality at a level sufficient to be used as a biocontrol agent against fire ants. That is why the researchers chose it for this study. The virus is found naturally in the United States, but its prevalence is low and sparse.

They focused on a single species of fire ant, Solenopsis invicta (Buren), which occupies 150 million acres from Florida to California and is responsible for a variety of crop and livestock damage. Traditional insecticides have been shown to be effective in controlling it, but they must be applied regularly to keep areas free from re-infestation and can cause local contamination. The virus was apparently effective in clearing out the fire ants.

“We are quite pleased that it contributes to the natural control of fire ants,” Steven Valles, lead author of the study and researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told WP. “It is important to continue to release things that will naturally control the ant to provide the more ecological balance with the native ants so that they can compete.”

But researchers also found that when two types of fire ants mated, they created a hybrid that was resistant to the virus, suggesting that there may be problems with the virus approach. In this case, researchers suggest developing a new viral variant that would target the hybrid ant, but many people would probably dodge the idea of ​​a viral variant – even if it’s just a virus for ants.

Nevertheless, the study highlights the potential for alternative ways to keep the invasive ant population under control, which is important not only for humans but also for the local biodiversity, which fire ants threaten. Fire marsh populations has exploded in the United States, with studies indicating that they are at least four times richer in the country than in their natural habitat. And they are evolving into hybrid species.

Restraining imported fire marsh populations using SINV-3 can help native species that have been affected by them to return. This is the case with those threatened with extinction Attwaters prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri) and the native fire ant, which for most would actually be difficult to distinguish from the imported variety, but which is much more benign to the habitats of the southern United States.

Nevertheless, the researchers acknowledge that it will be difficult to stop the growing spread of fire ants around the world, which goes beyond the use of SINV-3. Fire ants has recently appeared in Australia, Taiwan, China and the Caribbean, and has the potential to spread over half the world in the world, limited only by dry climates and icy weather.

The study was published in Journal of Invertebrate Pathology.

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