Fire ants, and particularly the Red Imported Fire Ant, are known for being very aggressive and having a painful, stinging bite. This species of ant is native to South America and came to the United States through Mobile, Alabama in the 1930s. Since their introduction to the United States and starting in the 1940s and 1950s, Red Imported Fire Ants have quickly spread across the southern U.S. Currently, the Red Imported Fire Ant can be found in thirteen southern states, including Texas.
If you’ve seen or been affected by fire ants in Texas, it is most likely that you’ve been in contact with the Red Imported Fire Ant, as this particular species is the most common type of fire ant in Texas. Red Imported Fire Ants are most specifically found in Texas’ southern and southeast counties, making Houston especially vulnerable to fire ant infestations. In fact, these ants are a large part of Houston’s landscape, making them an almost permanent problem that most Houstonians will have to address at some point in their lives. This species of fire ant thrives in direct sunlight and warm temperatures, actively avoiding any area that may be dark or shady. Red Imported Fire Ants will generally infest locations in the spring and summer months such as gardens, lawns, golf courses or roadsides as these locations offer the openness and sunlight that these fire ants need to work and reproduce. Red Imported Fire Ants mounds will generally appear very suddenly and especially if recent rainfall has made the ground particularly wet.
To understand why you might need to seek fire ant control and how these insects are putting your family and home at risk, it’s important to understand the habits of fire ants, how to identify them, the impacts they may potentially have, how they spread and the health implications of being stung.
How To Identify Red Imported Fire Ants
Red Imported Fire Ants are a small species of ant that have dull reddish brown or black bodies, six legs, a hard exoskeleton and a stinger. Their appearance can make them hard to distinguish from other types of ants living among us in Texas. Although these ants may look very similar to other, less dangerous species of ants, there are ways you can identify whether or not the type of ant on your property is a Red Imported Fire Ant. One of the most simple ways to identify the presence of Red Imported Fire Ants near your home is by their nests, or mounds. Other ant species will generally have a hole in the top of their mound, while the Red Imported Fire Ant’s mound will not. You can also differentiate this species of ant from others by the wide range of size between ants in the same colony. Most ant species are uniform in size, but the Red Imported Fire Ant tends to have many variations in sizes between ants present in their nests. This species lives in colonies that may include 100,000 to 500,000 fire ants, including winged males, or reproductives, workers and queen ants. Each type of ant plays a specific role in the fire ant colony and together, are very effective in sustaining their colonies and wreaking havoc on your property.
Worker Fire Ants
Worker fire ants range from small to medium in size, measuring between 2.4 and 6 mm long. These ants are sterile, wingless females that build the nests and ensure that the queen and the developing brood, consisting of eggs, larvae and pupae are protected. If necessary, the worker fire ant will move the queen to safety if the nest is threatened, defend the colony from intruders and forage for the food that will sustain the queen and their nest.
Winged Male Fire Ants
The purpose of the Winged Male fire ant is to live in the ant colony until it is time to mate. Once these ants make their mating flight with the queen and a new colony is established, the winged male fire ant will die.
Queen Fire Ants
Queen fire ants are responsible for mating with the winged male fire ants and establishing new colonies. After her mating flight, the fertilized fire ant queen will land lose her wings.
Establishing A New Colony
As mentioned, new fire ant colonies are formed after the winged male fire ants and queens finish their mating flights. Once the queen has landed and shed her wings, she will then find a suitable location for her new nest and begin to build underground chambers where she will lay her eggs. The queen’s first eggs will become the worker ants which will take care of her and maintain the colony. After three to four weeks, her first eggs will hatch and she will then be joined by these workers who will care for her and her brood. They will then begin to find food and develop the nest. If the new colony remains undisturbed, it has the possibility to grow to 10,000 worker ants within the first year. During the second half of the first year, the queen will also begin to lay the eggs that will then become winged male fire ants.
As the nest is extended, the worker ants will begin pushing up the soil below ground in order to build the tunnels they will use to move within the colony. This soil becomes the mound, or “ant hill” that we see above ground. Fire ants cannot enter the nest through the mound, but instead, enter the nest using underground tunnels that can extend several feet beyond the mound. It is worth knowing that a fire ant colony may still exist on your property without the presence of a mound. If the weather is particularly hot or dry, the worker ants will tunnel deeper into the ground, pushing soil downward and avoiding the mounds that are so obvious to the human eye. Depending on the conditions of the weather or soil, new fire ant colonies may not construct mounds that are visible for months or even up to a year. The Red Imported Fire Ant will establish a colony in essentially any type of soil, but it is rare to find a mound in heavily wooded areas.
How Do Fire Ants Spread?
During their mating flights, Red Imported Fire Ants will naturally spread as they look to establish a new colony. These ants will generally stay close to their initial colony, finding a location that is usually a mile or less from the colony they are leaving behind. However, mating flights as far as twelve miles have been observed. Mating flights will most commonly happen during the spring or early summer months and more specifically, after it has rained and the the weather is warm, sunny and lightly windy. In the presence of floods or moving rivers, Red Imported Fire Ants can also spread by floating downstream in large groups. These fire ants can also spread in ways that do not occur naturally and that are helped along through the habits of humans. Winged female fire ants are often drawn to items that are shiny and in large numbers can occupy human made objects such as trucks, cars and railroad cars. This offers the fire ant a mode transportation and the opportunity to spread across greater distances.
Damages Caused By Fire Ants
The Red Imported Fire Ant not only impacts humans with their painful stings, but are also a source of vast economic destruction across the United States, and specifically in the realm of agriculture and electrical equipment. This destruction has become so great that fire ants cause an estimated $6.7 billion in losses every year throughout the United States. This amount includes the medical costs paid by humans who have to seek treatment because they have been stung.
Agriculturally, fire ant mounds can become a major issue for farmers. In Texas, farmers may be dealing with 300 fire ant mounds per acre on their farming land. These mounds are not only unsightly and harmful to crops, but can also cause damage to combines and mowers. Fire ants are also attracted to electrical equipment which can cause equipment to fail and short circuits. In urban areas, these ants will nest in electrical equipment such as traffic lights, air conditioners, transformers and telephone junction boxes. If an ant is shocked while inside of an electrical device, the ant will release a pheromone which signals to more ants that will then swarm the device. This swarming may cause further damage to the electrical equipment. Fire ants will also nest under highways or sidewalks and as the colony diminishes, it will sink and leave a pothole behind, causing damage to the roads and walkways that humans use to get from place to place. Lastly, fire ants can indirectly have a negative impact on water as humans overuse insecticides in an attempt to control or reduce fire ant populations. These harmful insecticides can lead to pollution of lakes and rivers as it contaminates surface runoff water.
What Do Fire Ants Eat
Some fire ant species require a specific food source to survive. The Red Imported Fire Ant differs from other species in this way, as they will essentially eat anything they have access to, whether that be plant or animal. Red Imported Fire Ants are known to dine on meat, sweets and greasy food sources. This includes earthworms, ticks, insects or honeydew and even newborn vertebrae like rodents, calves and birds. These ants are happy to eat dead animals, whether they caused the animal’s death or found the animal after it had already expired. Red Imported Fire Ants also cause damage to plants as they feed on them. Particularly, these ants will eat germinating seeds and developing fruits of crops including okra, berries, citrus and beans. They might also damage young trees as they girdle them in an attempt to find water.
The Prevalence and Dangers of Fire Ant Stings
In the southeastern United States, five million people are stung by Red Imported Fire Ants every year. Of these five million people, approximately 25,000 will require medical care. If disturbed by a human, worker ants in their mound will rush to the surface and begin attacking any available body part, grabbing the skin in their mandibles and stinging. These coordinated attacks can be made by hundreds of ants at a time, all stinging repeatedly and simultaneously.
If stung by a Red Imported Fire Ant, you will experience itching and burning sensations, followed by pustules at the site of the bite that can take more than a week to heal. It is never a good idea to scratch these itchy pustules, as scratching can cause a secondary infection and leave a permanent scar. Some people are more sensitive to fire ant venom than others, and those who are less tolerable might experience nausea, chest pains or even a slip into a coma from just one sting. Those with allergies, babies and the elderly are especially vulnerable to the venom of a fire ant. In rare cases, these stings can be fatal to humans. Small animals, poultry and domestic animals can also be harmed and sometimes even killed as the result of fire ant stings.
How To Prevent Fire Ants On Your Property
Fire ant prevention is a good way to avoid all of the annoyances, dangers and damages that can come along with an infestation of these insects. One way to prevent an infestation of the Red Imported Fire Ant is to maintain a clean home and property. Fire ants will seek out food scraps in garbage, so make sure to keep your floors clean with food sources out of reach. Repairing holes in exterior walls is another way to keep these insects out of your home. Due to their small size, fire ants are able to enter your house through small holes and cracks. Ensuring that these holes are sealed is also a good preventative measure to take. Additionally, leftover pet food is enticing to these insects. Sealing any pet food containers or keeping spilled pet food off of your floors will help to deter these insects from infesting your home. You should also be careful when brining plants, outdoor toys and other objects into your home, as fire ants might have settled into these items.
Perhaps the best way to avoid a fire ant infestation is to seek professional preventative fire ant treatment around your home in the early stages of fire ant season. Natran will secure your home and prevent a fire ant infestation by treating any vulnerable points of entry in the interior of your home including attics, cracks and underneath sinks. Your Natran technician will then treat your home’s exterior to ensure the safety and comfort of your family.