Red imported fire ants aren’t supposed to be in the United States, but these dangerous pests have made themselves at home here. If you are stung by fire ants, you’ll probably know it: They swarm onto your skin and sting like fire!
Fire ants range in color from red-brown to black, and grow up to 1/4 inch in length. They build nests or mounds about 1 foot high, usually in grassy areas like lawns and pastures. Unlike most anthills, fire ant nests have no single entrance. The ants crawl all over the hill. Fire ants are very aggressive when their nest is disturbed. If provoked, they swarm on the perceived intruder, anchor themselves by biting the skin, and then sting repeatedly.
Fire ant nests are small cities, sometimes containing as many as 200,000 crawlers, according to Texas A&M University. Inside these busy colonies, female workers maintain structure and feed their young, while male drones breed with the queen or queens. In communities with more than one queen, when young queens mature, they fly off with males to create new nests.
Red imported fire ants came to the United States by accident in the 1930s. Lacking a local predator, they have thrived in the Southern states and are moving north. They’re having the vacation of a lifetime, and they can certainly disturb yours! There are fire ants native to the United States, but they are not as dangerous or hard to get rid of.
Fire ants are designed to withstand just about any challenge. Researchers at the University of Arkansas have found that it would take two weeks of temperatures below 10°F to kill an entire colony. While fire ants will kill and eat other insects like regular ants, they have also been known to live on crops and animals. And you can’t even drown them: Fire ants can form a nest on water and float it to a dry location!
If you are the victim of fire ants, chances are you’ll know. They attack in swarms, racing up vertical surfaces (such as your leg) when their nests are disturbed. They are aggressive and determined. Each fire ant can sting several times.
To identify fire ant stings, look for groups of swollen red spots that develop a blister on the top. Stings hurt, itch, and last up to a week. Some people have a dangerous allergic reaction to stings and will need to seek immediate medical help.
Treat mild sting reactions by washing the affected area with soap and water and covering with a bandage. Applying ice can reduce the pain. Topical treatments include over-the-counter steroid creams and antihistamines to reduce pain and itch.
Bites should go away in about a week. Scratching can cause the bites to become infected, in which case they may last longer.
Anyone can develop an allergy to fire ant stings at any time, although people who’ve been stung before are at higher risk. An allergic reaction can be fatal. Signs of a dangerous allergic reaction include:
- sudden difficulty with breathing
- having a hard time swallowing
Symptoms develop quickly after exposure. It’s critical to get emergency medical treatment if you see signs of an allergic reaction to a fire ant sting.
If you have a severe allergy, there are some more involved long-term treatments, including whole body extract immunotherapy. In this process, an allergist-immunologist injects extracts of the ant and its venom into your skin. Over time, your sensitivity to them should decrease.
The best way to avoid fire ant stings is to stay away from fire ants. If you see a nest, resist the temptation to disturb it. Wear shoes and socks when working and playing outside. If you are attacked by fire ants, move away from the nest and brush the ants off with a cloth or while wearing gloves so they can’t sting your hands.
Fire ant colonies are notoriously hard to destroy. There are some poisonous baits which may wipe out fire ants with regular application. The most common is a pesticide called piretherine. The best time to use bait against fire ants is during the fall, when the ants are less active. Professional pest control companies treat fire ants where they are common. Dousing a fire ant hill in boiling water can be effective for killing many ants, but it is also likely to cause the survivors to attack.
Fire ants are a growing problem in the southern United States. Avoid them whenever you can and take basic protective measures when going outside, such as wearing shoes and socks. Be on the lookout for a severe allergic reaction in anyone who has been stung, and be prepared to get emergency medical help if needed.