A computer bug for the rest of us

While it is easy to protect a computer from most invaders, the state of Texas may have an invader that is tough to keep out. Crazy Rasberry ants have already proven to be a menace to computers at a chemical company and may have their sights set on Johnson Space Center. Hmm. Houston, we have a problem.

If you are smart, you have up-to-date antivirus software, a firewall, probably some spam protection, and maybe a spyware blocker on your computer. You likely feel pretty safe with those tools, and you probably keep them up to date and run recommended scans.

Your security products keep you safe, and this is good. But they have limitations. They can't, for instance, keep you safe from buggy software.

Or buggy hardware.

If you provide computer support in Houston, or any of the Texas Gulf Coast cities, you may need to add a new tool to your bag. The name and number of a good exterminator.

A new breed of ant is in town, and for some reason, they want to eat your computer. It isn't personal. They would eat mine too- but I live in the wrong climate for them.

The ants, dubbed the Crazy Rasberry ants after Tom Rasberry, owner of Budget Pest Control in Pearland, Texas, will swarm in huge numbers looking for one thing — food. And they will attack your computer to find it.

From ComputerWorld:

Rasberry told Computerworld that the ants have caused a lot of trouble for one Texas chemical company in particular. Not wanting to name the company, he said the ants shorted out three different computers that were running a pipeline that brought chemicals into the plant. The ants took down two computers last year and one in 2006, affecting flow in the pipeline each time.

"I think they go into everything and they don't follow any kind of structured line," said Rasberry. "If you open a computer, you would find a cluster of ants on the motherboard and all over. You'd get 3,000 or 4,000 ants inside and they create arcs. They'll wipe out any computer."

The Johnson Space Center called in Rasberry a month or two ago in an attempt to keep the ants out of their facilities. Too late. Raspberry said he's found three colonies at the NASA site, but all have been small enough to control.

"With the computer systems they have in there, it could devastate the facility," said Rasberry. "If these ants got into the facility in the numbers they have in other locations, well, it would be awful. I've been in this business for 32 years and this is unlike anything I've ever seen. Anything. When you bring in entomologists from all over the United States and they're in shock and awe, that shows you what it's like."

Seems like you could just grab a can of RaidTM and be done with the problem, right? Well, no. Rasberry uses products containing the chemicals fipronil and chlorfenapyr (professional exterminators can purchase these, but you can't) but finds that he can't put down enough of the chemicals to make a difference. The staggering proliferation of the ants is too great, and there are environmental restrictions on the chemicals themselves.

It is thought that the ants arrived in the United States via a cargo ship in about 2002. Since then, the prolific ant has grown in numbers so great that they are considered to be a hazard.

From the New York Times:

Jason Meyers, a doctoral student in urban entomology at Texas A&M who is writing his dissertation on the ants, described them as enigmatic and confirmed that they were discovered by Mr. Rasberry. They belong to the genus Paratrechina, like others seen in Colombia, the Caribbean and Florida, Mr. Meyers said, but are different enough for entomologists to only guess at their species, listing them for now as "near" pubens.

"It's a very fecund species, with multiple queens," Mr. Meyers said.

The ants often eat fire ants, with which they are sometimes compared, and they "outcompete" fire ants for the food supply and reproduce far faster, Mr. Meyers said.

If you are an IT support person in a Gulf Coast state, my heart goes out to you. I can fix most things that go wrong with a computer. I can take them apart and put them back together. But I draw the line at pest control. Surely, that is someone else's job.

What are some of your more interesting support finds? We all know about or have seen the "snakes in the computer." What interesting things have you found when responding to a "normal" tech support call?

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