University of Florida researchers in Gainesville are using some of red imported fire ants' behaviors against them in the battle against the biting and stinging insect.
Red imported fire ants typically haul off their dead and deposit them in "bone yards" far away from the nest, according to a news release.
The practice has significantly reduced the efficacy of commercial biological fungal control methods.
The fungus can't spread if infected ants are separated from the healthy colony.
Nemat Keyhani, an associate microbiology professor, led a team from the university's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
They modified the Beauveria bassiana fungus to produce a peptide—two or more amino acides—that helps regulate the fire ants' nervous system.
The modified fungus is five to eight times more effective in killing fire ants.
At the same time, it has no increased effect on an unrelated insect, the greater wax moth.
An added benefit was the peptide disrupted the ants' undertaker-like behavior.
That means the infected dead ants would remain in the colony, allowing the fungus to spread.