Did you know…fire ants?

Oct 31, 2017

I remember as a small child, my father pointing out the foot-high dirt mounds on the property warning me to stay away from them or I would regret it. The curious child that I was, I went directly to that same mound, after he returned to the house, and threw a rock in it. I was amazed and enthralled with the thousands of ants that rapidly emerged from their nest searching for the intruder. It wasn’t long before my bare toes caught their attention and I was reminded of my father’s warning. From that moment on, I quickly learned how to identify the dirt mounds where fire ants resided and to stay away from them. An ounce of prevention, or in this case avoidance, is most definitely worth a pound of cure.

Fire ant bites are as common as daily thunderstorms in southeast Louisiana. It was a summertime tradition to have bites treated after a day of playing outside. Running around barefoot in the yard, it was only a matter of time before the bites that felt like fire would grip our little feet and lower legs. Did you know the bites are actually stings? The bites, if infected, can leave scars. Worse yet, if bitten enough, especially if the victim is allergic to the venom, the bites can kill a person. Furthermore, fire ants, whose Latin name is Solenopsis Invicta, originated from South America. They have a negative impact on the agricultural industry though they can be beneficial too.

 Fire ants have mandibles that pinch the flesh providing a target for the ant to pierce its stinger and inject its poison venom. Enough humans have been bitten by these hardy ants to know that the pain induced by the alkaloid nature of the venom feels like fire, hence the nickname fire ant. It also produces a necrotoxic effect on our bodies. In other words, the skin where the bite occurs dies, literally, due to the poison of the venom. A white pustule that forms is evidence of the bite and the dead tissue. The best treatment for these pustules is a half and half solution of water and bleach directly to the site of the sting to reduce pain and prevent infection. It’s important not to scratch the pustules as this can lead to follow-on infections.

These devilish ants came to the southeast United States in the 1930’s through the shipping port in Mobile, Alabama. Ships returning from Brazil and Argentina, or so it is presumed, carried fire ants in their ballast bays because they were not properly washed down. Like many other prolific species of pests, there were initially no natural predators to keep the population of fire ants in check.

The economic impact of fire ants is a larger problem than most people may realize. Fire ant mounds grow large enough to damage farm equipment. Since fire ants are omnivores, they are known to eat the tender shoots of crops, like soybeans and peanuts, as well as young farm animals. As much of a nuisance as they are, fire ants do, believe it or not, pose some benefits. They keep down populations of other nuisance insects, like tics and fleas. They also help our sugarcane farmers by keeping the sugarcane borer, a moth of the Crambidae family with Latin name Diatraea saccharalis, at bay leading to healthier crops of the sweet and succulent cane.

 

The next time you wander outside, especially in bare feet, it’s important to watch out for dirt mounds where fire ants reside or you too will regret it.

Resources

http://entomology.lsu.edu/assets/pub2360fireants4.pdf
http://factslegend.org/30-interesting-fire-ants-facts/
https://io9.gizmodo.com/5769731/how-fire-ants-invaded-north-america-then-the-world-in-just-a-few-decades

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