Ant Farm

Evelyn Garcia stood behind her half-open door holding her two-month-old daughter Yanel as she answered my questions. She said she hasn't let her baby out of her sight since the tragedy across the street.

Her father would be returning soon from a trip to Home Depot. He was off buying pesticides to flood the hills of southern fire ants in her backyard. It was time for some genocide.

Three-month-old Autumn White had been killed days earlier when fire ants streamed into her crib as she slept. She was bitten several hundred times. Paramedics at the scene believe the girl died of an allergic reaction to the bites.

About 2 percent of humans are allergic to ant bites, entomologists say. Statistically, that means about 60,000 Valley residents are at serious risk from these tiny creatures. Children and the elderly are at greatest risk.

On the day Autumn White died, the neighbors' view of the mountains, already cut down by rapidly multiplying homes, was blocked by smog. The temperature was 107 degrees and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality had issued an ozone warning. State officials begged commuters to car-pool or stay home that day. In response to the pleas, traffic was unusually heavy on freeways carrying suburbanites from their work downtown to their now-blocked view of a desert habitat known worldwide for the toxic viciousness of its flora and fauna.

Such is life on the ever-growing outskirts of America's fastest sprawling city, where humans increasingly build their desert homes on the desert homes of desert creatures that survived here because they were not to be messed with.

The southward march of subdivisions in southwest Phoenix continues even amidst a lengthy economic downturn. As the economy has floundered, mortgage rates have reached all-time lows. Last week, two days after Autumn White died, mortgage rates hit another new bottom.

Yet far-right Republican legislators, gutting state services to balance the budget, won't even discuss raising taxes, particularly property taxes, to maintain adequate -- and, as it may turn out to be in the case of Autumn White, vital -- state services.

A block west of Garcia's home, three inspectors from the Arizona Department of Agriculture hovered over a weed marked with a small pink flag. They were checking their ant trap.

The trap itself was a small ball of Spam in a plastic cup the size of a shot glass. The inspectors picked dozens of ants from the Spam and placed them in test tubes filled with alcohol. The ants would be taken back to the department's entomologist for further study.

Agriculture officials were worried an invasive ant species had shown up in the middle of Arizona without their knowledge. They have lost dozens of inspectors and other staff throughout the state because of budget cuts.

In fact, legislators have cut the Red Fire Ant program, which was important to the department's efforts to identify and eradicate invasive and dangerous ant species. Conservative lawmakers held up the Red Fire Ant program as another example of needless government waste of taxpayer dollars.

Agriculture officials say the ants collected near the house where Autumn White died were southern fire ants, a species considered native to Arizona. The Agriculture Department determined that there was no unusual infestation of the new development where she died.

It was just the normal amount of dangerous insects you find in the Sonoran Desert.

Yet experts tell me the situation appears far from normal.

Deborah Gordon, a Stanford ant researcher who has spent 20 years studying Arizona ants, was very suspicious of the state's assessment that the ants that bit the southwest Phoenix infant were southern fire ants.

"The scene you describe doesn't sound like something that particular ant would do," she said from her office in Palo Alto, California. "It's very unusual for these ants to come into the house like that. They like the wide open spaces."

But assistant fire chief Bob Khan said that's exactly what the ants did. His paramedics found the girl covered in the ants and ant bites in the house. There were ants all over the floor, he said.

"This case has been the water cooler talk at the department," he said. "In one discussion, there was over 100 years of experience in the room and none of the guys in the conversation had ever seen a case like this. The girl was covered with hundreds of little bites. It was more than anyone had ever seen."

Agriculture Department officials had dual motives for sending investigators to take samples from the area surrounding where Autumn White died. Of course they wanted to know if Arizona had been infiltrated by South American red fire ants or some other nasty species. But they also wanted to know so they could quickly snuff out rumors that Arizona and its agriculture products might now be infested by a creature that other states would want to quarantine.

You may remember that last week, a cow in Canada was found to have mad cow disease. Now, Canadian economists are predicting devastating effects on sales of Canadian beef.

"The bosses here saw the [ant] story and knew they had to move quickly to find out what was going on," says Rae Chornenky, legislative liaison for the Department of Agriculture. "Even a tiny rumor in the media can be devastating. It's our job to protect the integrity of produce and other products coming out of the state."

She insists that there is no indication there's any new kind of ant in Arizona. And to have people even suggesting that such an ant might be here is extremely dangerous.

At the border of Mexico and New Mexico, the state inspectors who do remain are watching for two invasive ant species that have been discovered in New Mexico and Mexico.

One is the Argentine ant, which has been found in Albuquerque, and causes problems for crops; the other is a South American fire ant that wipes out native species with sheer numbers.

Now the Department of Agriculture is in damage control mode.

So is the developer who built the homes in the neighborhood where Autumn White died. Two Greystone representatives reminded me last week that it was not the builder's responsibility to eradicate ants around homes they have already sold.

The message being sent by our political and economic leaders is clear:

Don't let a little story about a few ants affect your decision to purchase our vegetables and our cheap homes with desert vistas.

Our children are fine. Our homes are fine. Our crops are fine. Our monthly payments are fine.

But all isn't fine. Last week, that truth was delivered to Arizonans by a species that has shown a lot more success maintaining civilizations in the Sonoran Desert:

If you build a shoddy colony, nature will always knock it down.

Contact the author at his online address: [email protected]

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Robert Nelson