A new governmental initiative may offer a new tool to help the Texas Fire Ant Research and Management Project control the red imported fire ants and other ant species. The project will study how a natural predator, the phorid fly, can help control the pests.

Plans are to mass-rear and release phorid flies, parasites that decapitate imported fire ants, in fire-ant-infested Southern states. The campaign involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency, the Agricultural Research Service; USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"This represents an increase in the investment to support and expand ongoing programs," said Bart Drees, coordinator of the Texas Fire Ant Research and Management Project. "Production of these flies is labor intensive, and the flies are costly to rear. By expanding this program, we hope to have access to more flies so we can expand that component of the project."

The main thrust of the project, according to Sanford Porter, research entomologist with the USDA-ARS, in Gainesville, Fla., is to accelerate evaluation of the fly's value in controlling fire ants. "We're only able to test it in less than a dozen sites each year. This will double our effort and give us the freedom to study additional species of decapitating flies," he explained.

The red imported fire ant, a native of South America, first arrived in the United States in Mobile, Ala., on ships in the 1930s. The pest quickly spread, reaching Texas in the 1950s, and now infests more than 80 million acres, mainly in the eastern two-thirds of the state. Across the South, it infests more than 310 million acres. Overall, the pest causes billions of dollars in agricultural losses, ecological damage and chemical control costs.