Tennessee Tech professor invents new fire ant eradicator

Ridding stinging, flying fire ants from parks and yards throughout the Southeast is about to become a bit easier, thanks to a local college professor.

Dr. David Whitmire, a chemical engineering professor at Tennessee Technological University, and two colleagues from the University of Georgia, expect to receive a patent soon for their invention of a chemical compound that fire ants eat which then neutralizes their venom, thereby making it vulnerable to predators.

"If you've been stung by a fire ant, you know it," said Whitmire, who has been stung himself "numerous" times. "But we're lucky in Cookeville; they're not here yet. Now they are in southern California and throughout the Southeast."

While the fire ant's venom is not lethal to humans, certainly not with just one sting, it can be quite deadly to virtually all other insects and even some wildlife, such as birds, Whitmire explained.

"Fire ants destroy wildlife; they're able to outcompete because of their venom. They are even dangerous to birds that nest hip-high or lower," he said. "The fire ants have decimated the quail population in Georgia. As soon as the chicks hatch, they crawl up to the nest and kill the baby birds and then take them back to their mounds piece by piece.

"The problem is formidable," Whitmire said.

Fire ants, which were accidentally introduced into the U.S. from South America in the early 1900s, are a menace to recreation, tourism, industry and agriculture primarily in the southeastern states.

And because they are spread over so many states, it's not feasible to simply kill them all at once.

"You can't spray poison over 11 states," Whitmire explained.

Whitmire, who came to TTU in August after teaching at the University of Georgia, has been working on the fire ant eradicator for about three years and was the one who originally conceived the idea of creating a chemical compound that would essentially rid fire ants of their venom.

"You've got to have a compound that is very similar to the fire ants' venom, so they can't build up an immunity to it," Whitmire explained. "Our compound has 18 different chemicals in it, all very similar to the venom."

By neutralizing the fire ants' venom, they lose the edge they have against other insects and some wildlife and become susceptible to other predators, he added. His colleagues from the University of Georgia are Dr. Phil Bowen and Dr. Scott Furness. The inventors are currently seeking sponsors to provide funding to commercialize the research.