The exterminator Tom Rasberry, with his namesake “crazy Rasberry ants,” in Deer Park, Texas. (Photo: David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

As recently as Wednesday, all was well in Houston, at least according to the papers. But today, a story resembling “a really low-budget horror film” is playing out there, with billions of monsters (tiny ones) spreading in a “crazy” (or astonishingly organized) way with a killer instinct (for other ants, and oddly, for electronic equipment).

Two spine-tingling reports, from The Houston Chronicle and The Associated Press, leave no gory detail unarticulated about the city’s suddenly immense problem with ants.

Rasberry ants, to be specific — a swarming, voracious type of small red-brown ant named for an exterminator with enough experience to play the world-weary veteran in this flick. Tom Rasberry (whose name is one letter short of the red fruit) faced this particular ant menace in Pasadena, Texas, back in 2002, and learned that the pesky things had no problem existing in an ant apocalypse of sorts:

Rasberry said he treated a half-acre plot with insecticide, returning months later to find the area covered thickly with two inches of dead ants. Living insects teemed on the top layer of insect corpses.

No one seems able to say for sure how the Rasberry ant — which the A.P. says is formally known as paratrenicha species near pubens — reached Houston, though the A.P. mentions the possibility of a ride on a cargo ship. However it got there, the species is evidently in town to stay.

While the local exterminators seek stronger poisons and the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency brainstorm ideas for controlling the ants, an entomologist at Texas A&M University doubted that humans could win. ‘’At this point, it would be nearly impossible to eradicate the ant, because it is so widely dispersed,'’ Roger Gold told the A.P.

If true, that means Houston residents will have to get used to regular extermination calls (nothing new for New York City apartment dwellers) as well as ant sabotage of electrical and electronic devices. For obscure reasons, the insects chew up the wiring inside things like pool pumps, computers, gas meters and fire alarms when they get inside them. Even the Johnson Space Center and Hobby Airport are on the lookout after signs of a Rasberry ant advance.

Though the individual ants seem to wander aimlessly (that’s what “crazy” refers to), as a group their advance can be shockingly efficient, as scientists found out when they studied Biosphere 2, the life-in-a-bubble project that captured imaginations at the end of the 20th century. Here’s a description from a New York Times article in 1996:

Swarms of them crawled over everything in sight: thick foliage, damp pathways littered with dead leaves and even a bearded ecologist in the humid rain forest of Biosphere 2, an eight-story, glass-and-steel world in the wilds of the Sonora Desert that cost $200 million to build.

As the would-be Eden turned into a nightmare, a cousin of the rasberry known as the “crazy ant” thrived, even though it was never intentionally allowed into the ecosystem. A 1999 study [pdf] offered a timeline:

In 1990-91, surveys in Biosphere 2 found no one ant species dominant. By 1993, populations of the crazy ant, Paratrechina longicornis (Latreille), a tramp species not found in 1990-91, had increased to extremely high levels. In 1996, virtually all ants (>99.9%) coming to bait were P. longicornis.

Against all the odds, therein lies the good news (of sorts) for Houston: If the Rasberry ants succeed as well as their cousins did in Biosphere 2, they will wipe out the city’s population of fire ants, or as the A.P. calls them, “the stinging red terrors of Texas summers.”

While the new ants will also bite humans, it reportedly doesn’t hurt nearly as much as a fire ant bite. So, despite the scary headlines, the crazy Rasberry may wind up being an unlikely hero — or at least, the lesser of two evil ants.