Florida State Researcher Defends Fire Ants

The Associated Press
Saturday, June 10, 2006; 9:31 PM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The first sentence of the first chapter of Walter Tschinkel's new book says it all: "I love fire ants." The Florida State University myrmecologist _ a biologist who specializes in ants _ has spent 35 years studying red imported fire ants, aggressive stinging insects that most Southerners consider a pest of the first order if not an outright scourge.

Tschinkel takes exception to that notion in "The Fire Ants." The 723-page epic, published by Harvard University Press, intersperses hard science about a complex and alien species with breezy "interludes" on his fire ant adventures and those of other researchers.

"The fire ant has been accused of almost every heinous act that people have been able to imagine, typically without any careful experimentation," Tschinkel said in an interview. "So there is this tendency to believe fire ants are capable of doing almost anything nasty."

Fire ants once were blamed for a fish kill, Tschinkel said. Researchers shoveled fire ant colonies into a pond trying to prove the fish died from eating the insects.

"Not a single fish died," Tschinkel said.

One of his interludes is about a trip to Miami to testify in a lawsuit that blamed a landlord for ant stings suffered by tenants.

The landlord won after Tschinkel told jurors no one is to blame for fire ants. He also said people should just leave them alone unless allergic to their venom. Otherwise they do no harm, he said.

"Most people hate fire arts without reservation, without reflection," he wrote. "Perhaps that is what the fire ant has to offer us _ something we can all agree to hate, something about whose reprehensibility there is no argument, something we can blame and that won't argue back."

Robert Vander Meer, fire ant research leader for the federal Agriculture Research Services in Gainesville, admires Tschinkel and his work and agreed fire ants bring out people's emotions. But there's good reason for that, he said.

"If it were an innocuous pest then you wouldn't have these emotions," Vander Meer said.

Besides being deadly to people who are allergic, fire ants destroy crops, damage irrigation systems, kill wildlife, short out air conditioning systems and undermine roads with their tunnels, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates fire ant damage and control total $6 billion a year. But even critics concede they also can be beneficial by killing other insect pests.

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