Invasive Fire Ants Reduce Butterfly Abundance in Texas

Fire ants have an omnivorous diet and feed on plant-based food and a variety of insects in their habitat, as they possess extraordinary hunting skills to capture their prey. The red imported fire ants entered Texas and other southeastern states in the 1930s.

Emily Geest studied the impact of invasive red imported fire ants on the butterfly abundance in Texas and published results in a research paper in 2023. She said fire ants are bad for eggs, larvae, and adult butterflies after observing that their population was higher in areas treated with granular bait to kill these ants.

Invasive fire ants began to kill the native species of other insects after invading Texas. This sudden decline of the native butterfly population captured the attention of researchers and gardeners.

These ants became efficient predators of butterflies after successful invasion, which led to a significant decline in the pollinator population and indirectly influenced the pollination of plants.

Study on reduction in butterfly’s population due to red imported fire ants in Texas

A few days ago, an article was published by Joshua Rapp in The Wildlife Society that mentioned Emily Geest’s work, a postdoctoral fellow in conservation Science at Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden.

Geest and some other researchers found a significant reduction in the abundance of native butterfly species in Texas due to the preying behavior of invasive fire ants.

They were tag-teamed by a group of other researchers studying the nesting success of Attwater’s prairie chicken and bobwhite quails in the presence of these ants.

In 2017, they treated a few ranches with granular bait to kill fire ants and left a few untreated areas for better study of ants’ impact on them.

It was an excellent opportunity for Geest and her colleagues to collect samples by trapping pollinating insects visiting the treated and untreated areas.

In the next two years, they collected pollinators by setting out traps of white, yellow, and blue-colored pans with soapy water.

In 2019, they examined collected pollinating insect species in the lab and identified their species.

Their aim was not to study butterflies as they focused on other pollinating insects, such as honeybees.

They collected almost 1262 butterflies and found a significant difference in their population in areas treated for fire ants and the untreated sections.

Additionally, the population of butterflies collected from treated sections is 26.6% more than those collected from untreated areas, indicating fire ants’ negative impact.

It was observed that the overwintering species of butterflies are more prone to predation by ants at early developmental stages because they are not good at defense during an immobile phase.

In addition, almost 28 species of butterflies were collected from different areas in Texas during this research work, but the number of skippers and Monarch butterflies was higher.

So, Geest and other fellow researchers found that these ants are responsible for a significant decline in Monarch butterflies.

Project Funding to study the impact of fire ants on butterflies in Texas

Many species of butterflies annually reach Texas from Mexico and other cold regions in the United States before winter because this state provides an ideal environment to survive winter.

Accordingly, a large population of overwintering species enter North Texas during winter and lay their eggs there when the weather becomes favorable.

These eggs turn into adults and migrate to other regions, so Texas plays a crucial role in the lifespan of overwintering Monarch butterfly species.

Texas A&M Commerce University spent almost $10,141 on a project to conduct intensive research on red imported fire ants and their role in reducing the Monarch butterfly’s egg and larvae.

Furthermore, they are supposed to get more funding for the project to help get rid of these ants and their negative impact on butterfly abundance in Texas.

Another project goal is to look for possible strategies to ensure the brood success that is highly vulnerable to predation by these ants.

Fire Ants Management project in Texas

Texas imported fire ants research and management project conducted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension had only one goal, which was to control the population of this invasive species in Texas.

This project introduced integrated pest management programs to control their population through biological methods and insecticides.

The two-step method, which involves broadcasting baits and individual mound treatment, is considered the suitable approach in severely infested areas.

Slow-acting baits can help kill most fire ant colonies when the foragers consume the toxic ingredients. After that, you have to treat the mounds separately through chemical or organic ways.

Chemical methods include using granular insecticides or dusting toxic chemicals, while organic methods include pouring boiling water or introducing phorid flies.

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