Even the name—fire ant—sounds scary, and it should. Their sting burns like fire, and you rarely get away with just one. They’re a feature of the south that every native warns Northern transplants about—right along with gators and snakes. If you live in the South, you live with fire ants.
Encounter a mound, and you’ll only ask whether they’re fire ants once. The ants are usually copper-colored, but workers can range from red to nearly black. They have three parts—head, thorax and abdomen—with the telltale waist pinched just above a slightly darker abdomen. As with all ants, the antennae are elbowed. In a mature mound, ants will be of assorted sizes, from less than ⅛ inch to ¼ inch or more. Tiny or tinier, they’re all fire ants.
Fire ants live in tunnels beneath mounds. You can find them in open fields, by the base of trees, or between sidewalks and a building foundation. The mounds are distinctive:
- They lack a single, centralized entrance.
- Small mounds appear as little more than a loose scattering of soil granules.
- Larger mounds are rounded heaps of granular, almost fluffy soil.
- In clay soils, large mounds can be 18 inches tall.
- In sandy soils, mounds may be rather flat.
- Mounds often appear rapidly after rain.
- One acre can support hundreds of mounds.
Prior to the 1970s, fire ant species maintained solitary mounds, with one queen. However, since then, polygenic colonies with multiple queens have become prevalent. The result has been tightly packed populations that freely roam from mound to mound.
Fire ants are a notoriously aggressive insect. Any disturbance to the mound results in hundreds of tiny ants swarming onto the intruder, each one intent on a three-step attack:
- Biting the victim to establish a grip.
- Stinging the victim by injecting solenopsin—a toxic venom alkaloid secreted in their abdomen.
- Pivoting and stinging repeatedly, as many times as possible.
Each bite is painful on its own, and these tiny ants not only sting repeatedly but also act en masse. Caught in shoes or beneath clothing, they will continue to bite and sting. Small children are especially at risk for multiple stings and allergic reactions. Fire ants can also take a toll on very young, sick or old animals.
Within hours, stings result in painful, itchy hives that become fluid-filled, blister-like pustules. The whole area affected may swell: a foot, for example. Some individuals develop an allergic reaction that intensifies with each successive fire ant incident. Extreme allergies to solenopsin can result in life-threatening anaphylaxis. Bites near eyes require medical attention.
Unfortunately, fire ants have made the South their home. They easily stretch from Virginia to California and are gradually extending northward. These resourceful insects have learned that gardens, electrical housings, buildings and homes all offer convenient, dry, secure habitat fit for a queen and her offspring.
Don’t let a fire ant colony surprise you or swarm your family. Arrow Environmental Services provides complete pest control services in the Sarasota, Florida, area. Call us at (800) 706-9313, or visit our website today. We use the most environmentally responsible techniques available. With Arrow, you'll be covered inside and out.