Fire ants are an experience you will never forget.
For me, it happened when I was a child, playing with friends. We sat down on the ground to continue our game, I started feeling something tingly, and then, all of a sudden, my legs were on FIRE!!!! I jumped up and tried to rid myself of the horrible burning sensation, but it was several hours before I was comfortable.
The burning, itching sensation that comes from being bitten by fire ants is not to be ignored. So, how is it that these tiny insects can cause so much pain? And are they a problem where you live?
Types of fire ants
There are three basic types of fire ants (and countless variations) found in the U.S.: native southwestern fire ants, red imported fire ants, and their close cousin, the black imported fire ant. Our domestic fire ants are not as aggressive as their South American cousins, and their stings are not as painful. Red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) and black imported fire ants (S. richteri) are extremely aggressive and their stings can be excruciating. Black imported fire ants are currently only found in the Southeastern U.S., and they are similar enough to their red-headed cousins, that we will be focusing on our biggest problem: the red imported fire ant.
Originally from Argentina, red imported fire ants are believed to have entered the U.S. in the 1930’s, in Alabama. By 1998, these stinging insects had made their way across the country to California. When the imported species meet our domestic fire ants, the home team loses.
Fire ant description
Red imported fire ants look like common ants, only bigger. Females are reddish colored. Males are black. Eggs are white and oval-shaped. Within one week, the egg looks more like a larva and the egg casing falls away. The larvae go through four stages (instars) before they reach adulthood. There are castes within a fire ant colony. The queens are the biggest, and then there are two castes of workers: major and minor. Smaller, minor workers tend to stay indoors and care for the brood, while larger, major workers go outside and forage for food. Major workers are twice the size of minor workers.
Fire ant colonies
Fire ants live in colonies. Since they need water to live, these colonies are generally found near water. Colonies may be found under a sidewalk, near the base of a tree trunk, in electrical equipment, and in and around your home. Colonies in the ground will often mound the soil up 12 to 18 inches. Each colony hosts 100,000 to 500,000 workers and several breeding queens. These queens may live for a few years, while the sterile workers only live a few weeks. If nearby water levels rise, fire ants will build floating islands to protect the colony.
Red imported fire ants have developed symbiotic relationships with insects, such as mealybugs, that produce honeydew. As omnivores, fire ants often eat dead animals and insects, fruit, and seeds. Their favorite food, however, is honey, so protect your hives!
Harm caused by fire ants
Fire ants can ruin more than a child’s game or a picnic. A red imported fire ant colony can make working in the garden nearly impossible. If a fire ant colony feels threatened, it can swarm an area with thousands of angry, stinging insects. These swarms are responsible for killing young livestock, such as rabbits, pigs, and even cattle. [Never restrain an animal or place a playpen near a fire ant colony.] The Stock Island tree snail is believed to have become extinct because of fire ants. Even if nothing in your garden becomes extinct because of fire ants, these pests, along with other ants, can carry diseases that may harm your plants.
Fire ant stings
A single burning, itching sting can capture your attention for about an hour. After that, the sting turns into a blister that will bother you for 3 or 4 hours. This blister transforms into a pustule that resolves in a couple of days. That’s if you’re lucky enough to only get stung once. If you develop an allergic reaction after a fire ant sting, get to the emergency room right away.
If you are not allergic to fire ant stings, wash the area with soap and water and apply a cold compress to reduce the pain and swelling. Antihistamines and topical steroid ointments may also provide some comfort, but nothing will get rid of it completely.
It is estimated that 14 million people are stung by red imported fire ants each year in the U.S., and that many of those people will develop an allergic reaction over time.
How to control fire ants
Luckily, fire ants are susceptible to the same control measures as other ants. Over-the-counter ant bait systems can be placed near the colony. If a severe infestation is present, contact local county pest control agencies by calling the statewide red imported fire ant hotline at 1-888-434-7326.
Apparently, high level conflicts attract one another. As much as 75% of a black widow spider’s diet is, you guessed it, red imported fire ants.
Other fire ant predators include earwigs, dragonflies, beetles, and other ants. To keep these somewhat beneficial insects alive, it is a good idea to avoid using broad spectrum insecticides. Birds and armadillos also find fire ants to be a tasty snack, but the strangest predator, in my opinion, is the fire ant decapitating fly (Pseudacteon obtusus).
These flies lay an egg on the back portion of a fire ant’s head, where the ant cannot reach it. The egg hatches and the larva starts feeding on the ant’s head, until it falls off. The fly larva enters the fallen head and stays there to pupate. [You can’t make this stuff up.]
So, if you see a mound that might be a fire ant colony, be careful!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!