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Ants Go Marching

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Five World War II bombers took off from a Florida airfield on Oct. 5, 1967, to bomb the American South. An article that ran that morning in the Sarasota  Herald-Tribune said that three B-17s and two PV-2s laden with 10,000 pounds of death-dealing cargo each would carry out their missions “with the City of Sarasota and eastern Manatee as their targets.”

While the bombers were certainly at war, they weren’t dropping explosives. Their enemy was a millimeters-long, brownish-red insect known to scientists as Solenopsis invicta, meaning “invincible ant,” and to lay people as the fire ant, aka “ants from hell” and “them devils.” The bombers were to unload mirex, a poison usually applied to grits, onto the critter.

By the late 1960s, the fire ant had been in the American South for more than 30 years. Southerners spoke of ruined crops, destroyed wildlife, and the ants’ fiery sting. How much damage the ants had actually caused was uncertain, but it was enough for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to declare war on the pest. During an 11-year campaign, more than 143 million pounds of mirex were dropped across 77,220 square miles of land from Texas to Florida, costing close to $200 million. The outcome? The ants nearly doubled their range. The mirex, which was later found to be a carcinogen, persisted in the environment for decades, accumulating in birds’ eggs, mammals’ milk, and human tissues. The world’s leading ant researcher, E.O. Wilson, dubbed the mirex program the “Vietnam of entomology.”

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Illustrations by Peter and Maria Hoey.

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Click the link below for the article:

https://getpocket.com/explore/item/ants-go-marching?utm_source=pocket_discover

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