Any Californian frustrated by the thousands of ants that seem to appear in one’s kitchen overnight, take heart. UC Irvine researchers may have discovered a way to defeat one particularly problematic species by making them tear each other to pieces.
Ants are famous for their teamwork and reliance on each other, and the common bond that keeps them cooperating is their scent.
‘There are apparently markers that allow them to recognize family members and they can distinguish them from non-family members,’ said Kenneth Shea, an organic chemist who, along with Neil Tsutsui, an evolutionary biologist, and Robert Sulc, a graduate student, hopes to exploit this fact to control the Argentine ant population in California.
Ants have a waxy chemical coating secreted by their exoskeletons, which, in addition to helping the ant retain moisture, helps its fellow ants identify it as a member of the colony.
When the colony detects a different smell, the foreign ant is subsequently decapitated and shredded.
‘There are suggestions from other insects that this is how ants distinguish a family member from a non-family member,’ Shea said.
After creating a synthetic version of an ant’s scent and then slightly changing the formula, a member of the colony was dabbed with the new scent. The foreign-smelling ant was subsequently killed by its former family.
One day, these synthetic compounds may be used in homes or for agricultural purposes, as ants have become a major problem for farmers.
‘[The Argentine ants] tend to protect insects that can hurt crops because they have a symbiotic relationship with them,’ Shea said.
According to the American Chemical Society, one super-colony of Argentine ants is believed to inhabit most of California, from San Diego to Ukiah (100 miles north of San Francisco). The Argentine ant is one of the most invasive species, killing native ant colonies and warring with other Argentine ant colonies.
The major benefit of using these compounds for commercial purposes is that, unlike many of the insect repellents used today, they are non-toxic to humans, animals and plants. The compounds would only be used to target the ants, leaving the surrounding environment unharmed. However, more research is required before the synthesized compounds can be sold for these purposes.
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