Saturday, 17 May 2008

Debugging - Texas Ant Invasion

Yesterday it was newts, today it's ants. I know, this blog is starting to read like a bestiary, but the story was just too fascinating to ignore.

For it seems that a plague of technology-chomping ants is sweeping through Texas, USA. No, I didn't believe it at first, either, but a brief Google search shows that it's true - or, at least, if it isn't, an awful lot of respected journals, including the Times, have been fooled.

Less than 1/8 of an inch long, the flea-sized super pests are resistant to over the counter insecticides, and, according to one report, use their dead to make bridges over any poison that DOES do the trick. Boffins don't know where they originally came from, although they are similar to a species found in the Caribbean, and it is speculated that they may have arrived in Texas aboard a cargo ship.

Wherever they came from, the interlopers are causing chaos because, for reasons that nobody fully understands, they are attracted by electronic equipment, and converge upon it in their thousands. They clog up fans and vents, short out circuit boards through sheer weight of numbers, nibble away at things you really wish they wouldn't, and, before you know it, your delicate equipment is toast. Computers, fire alarm control systems, a sewage plant and a whole range of other electronic gizmos have already fallen victim to them, and many more are likely to follow.

Now found in their millions in at least five counties in the Houston area, the ants - known as paratrenicha species near pubens, or commonly, crazy raspberry ants - look virtually impossible to get rid of. “They’re itty-bitty things, and they’re just running everywhere,” said Patsy Morphew, a resident of Pearland, on the Gulf Coast. She spends hours sweeping them off her patio and scooping them out of her pool by the cupful. “There’s just thousands and thousands of them."

In fact, there are more likely billions and billions of them, and they're spreading fast towards NASA's Johnson Space Centre and William P. Hobby airport. It all sounds like a 21st Century remake of the dubious 1974 movie Phase IV, but I could imagine that, if things are indeed as reported, these Crazy Raspberry Ants (crazy because they seem to run around at random, Raspberry after Tom Raspberry, an exterminator who first had dealings with them) could become at least a temporary problem.

After all, ventilation and heat dissipation are major issues in modern electronics, and most of the focus is on letting heat OUT of your equipment, rather than preventing tiny ants from getting IN. I suspect that's about to change as long-term R+D bods begin to contemplate the problem. And, in the short term, I expect there will soon be a booming anti-ant-product market in the Lone Star State, if there isn't already.

Billy Seggars.

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