A New Zealand study shows that Argentine ants, one the most invasive and damaging ant species in the world, host a virus that is associated with honeybee deaths.
Large colonies of the ants, Linepithema humile, are found on every continent except Antarctica.
They attack nesting birds, hatching eggs and other native fauna and quickly eliminate other ants from an infested area — especially native ants which play an important role in the ecosystem.
The Argentine ants also rob commercial beehives and are significant pests in orchards. But the latest research, published in Biology Letters, suggests a more significant problem if they are carriers of disease.
Researchers from Victoria University of Wellington and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) collaborated on the three year project, analysing genomic data from Argentine ant populations in New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.
They found Deformed Wing Virus, a pathogen linked to colony collapse in honeybees, was found in nearly all of New Zealand’s Argentine ant populations. This pathogen has been linked to colony collapse in honeybees.
Lead scientist, Professor Phil Lester from Victoria University of Wellington, says the large distribution of ants and their capacity to carry viruses that could prove devastating heightens researchers’ concerns.
“This discovery tells us that Argentine ants are much more of a problem than we previously thought,” Lester says.
“They host the same Deformed Wing Virus strain found in bees and wasps in New Zealand, and this virus has contributed to declines in honey bee populations around the world.
“Argentine ants are known to raid beehives and also forage in the same environment as honey bees. Such close contact is bad for bees, as their association promotes pathogen exchange,” he said.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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