Katrina Helps New Orleans Fight Fire Ants

Entomologists believe that Hurricane Katrina provided them with a golden opportunity to knock out, or at least squash, the fire ant population in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS — Entomologists believe that Hurricane Katrina provided them with a golden opportunity to knock out, or at least squash, the fire ant population in this city.

Flood waters rid many neighborhoods of the stinging ants and on Thursday crews began spreading deadly bait in parks and along levees to kill the ant colonies and nests that did survive.

The citywide eradication plan, backed by large donations of bait by pesticide companies, also seeks to engage neighborhood groups and homeowners in the fight.

"Ants are the No. 1 pest right now -- nationwide," said Claudia Riegel, an entomologist with the Mosquito and Termite Control Board, the agency that fights the swarms of bugs that find balmy New Orleans a perfect breeding ground.

In the coming weeks, workers will scatter granular bait over about 2,500 acres of parks, levees and other public green spaces in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, a neighboring parish hit hard by Katrina. Ants forage when temperatures get hotter, and officials expect them to pick up the bait and take it back to their colonies.

The ants are mainly a nuisance because they can deliver a powerful stinging jolt -- about 1 percent of people are highly allergic to the venom -- but they can also cause other damage.

For instance, they can short-circuit electrical systems. "They're bad at airports with the runway lights, and with traffic lights, air conditioning," said Dale Pollet, a Louisiana State University AgCenter entomologist.

The fight is targeting nonnative species of fire ants, which have taken over large sections of the city, and the nation.

Entomologists are upbeat about the possibility of taking a big bite out of the red ant population in the region for at least the next six months, and longer if neighborhoods and homeowners participate in great numbers. In about six weeks, homeowners will be able to get the bait for free.

Officials said the bait is environmentally safe and poses little risk to pets if people follow the directions on the pesticides' labels.

The hope is that residents returning to their formerly flooded neighborhoods to rebuild will also tackle the pest problem.

The two biggest threats are the insatiable Formosan termite and mosquito.

With many neighborhoods still largely void of people, Riegel said Formosan termites are probably thriving with the lack of exterminators and the abundance of vacant homes for the termites to feast on.

"The termites are still here," she said. "There was talk that they might have died, but they're still here."

This year, like every year, Formosan termites are swarming with the approach of Mother's Day, and they can be seen gathering in great frenetic hordes in the glow of street lamps at dusk.

"All they need is a leaky roof and a bit of water, and we have plenty of that," Riegel said about what triggers termite infestations.

Meanwhile, pest control workers are vexed by the 6,000-plus unattended swimming pools throughout the city. The murky pools are breeding grounds for mosquitos, and where possible officials are dumping guppylike fish which eat mosquito larvae into the pools. So far, the fish, which are called mosquitofish, have been placed in about 2,000 pools.

Source: Associated Press

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