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Fire ants: What you need to know

“Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.”

This is how Dr. Justin Schmidt described the sting of a fire ant in his famous insect sting pain scale. From the sound of it, you’ll want to steer clear of these tiny insects. Found throughout the southern United States, fire ants pack a powerful punch. Though they can be beneficial, feeding on tickscockroach and other pests, the thought of a run-in with a bed of fire ants is not one many people enjoy.

If fire ant mounds are popping up on your property, or if you’re concerned they may become a problem, contact the fire ant control experts at Ehrlich. Ehrlich can help get rid of a fire ant infestation, keeping you and your family safe.

Here are some things you should know about fire ants.

Fire Ant upclose

What do fire ants look like?

As their name suggests, fire ants are a dark reddish-brown color. Males are black, but are rarely seen except during mating swarms or shortly after, when they die. Fire ants are ⅛-¼ of an inch, with larger reproductive ants and smaller workers. The two nodes on their thorax help to differentiate the species from one-node ants such as carpenter ants, crazy ants, and odorous house ants.

Fire ant queen

Long live the queen! This common British phrase embodies the fire ant hierarchy perfectly. Fire ant queens can live as long as seven years, while workers usually only live about five weeks. Worker fire ants do all they can to protect the queen, only feeding her food they’ve eaten first and removing her from any imminent danger.

To begin a fire ant colony, queen fire ants mate with males, killing the male in the process, and fly to the site at which she’ll begin the new colony. Here, she sheds her wings and lays about a dozen eggs. After this initial batch, the queen will lay up to 800 eggs per day, growing the colony to an average size of 100,000 to 500,000 ants.

Fire ant mounds

Fire ant mounds

Fire ants are hypersensitive about disturbances to their mound. If someone kicks the mound, steps on it, etc., the ants rush out and sting the perpetrator. Luckily, fire ants prefer to build their mounds in open areas with plenty of sunlight, so they’re usually easy to spot. But unlike other ant species’ mounds, there is no opening in the center of a fire ant mound. Entrance and exit take place in underground tunnels. The ants also use these tunnels to find cooler temperatures and water sources when the weather gets too hot or dry. When this happens, the mounds begin to disappear. Conversely, when it rains heavily, mounds come up everywhere as ants attempt to escape the flooded soil.

What do I do if there are fire ants on me?

If you somehow get fire ants on you, it may be your first instinct to try and shake them off in a state of panic. Though it is important to remove the ants quickly, shaking will not work. They’ll likely latch on tight, and shaking will only make them hold tighter. It also won’t do any good to jump into a body of water. Again, they’ll hold on tighter and maybe even sting a different spot. The most effective way to remove them is to quickly and repeatedly brush them off of the skin. If they are stinging through clothes or shoes, promptly remove the clothing and ensure they are gone before re-dressing.

Ant biting skin

Fire ant stings

We often get inquiries about fire ant bites, but these fiery insects don’t actually bite at all. They sting. When they do so, it burns like fire…thus their name. The sting site may swell and itch. A small pustule sometimes develops where the stinger entered the skin. These pustules are naturally sterile but can become infected when scratched. Some people have a more serious allergy to fire ant venom, rendering a fire ant sting much more threatening. In most cases, fire ant stings can be treated with over-the-counter remedies, but with a more severe reaction, seek medical attention immediately.

Should I worry about floating fire ant colonies?

Considering all the recent hurricane activity, there has been much talk about flooding fire ant colonies. Rising floodwaters don’t seem to bother fire ants much. They quickly adapt by forming waterproof clusters of thousands of ants. They keep the queen and larvae in the mound’s center for protection while the outside ants take turns cycling from the top of the mound to the bottom. The ants can do this for several days while they search for dry land.

In his paper on fire ants, Kevin Haight, a researcher at Arizona State University, discusses a positive correlation between stress levels/defensiveness and the length of time the ants have to stay afloat. The worker ants on the mound are on “high alert” for a way to get out the water and their elevated stress levels increase the potency of venom. Any tree, boat wall, or human leg will do as an escape ladder, and any ensuing stings will not be pleasant. In the event of flooding in your area, be sure to watch out for these floating fire ant colonies. For more post-hurricane pest control tips, visit our  Hurricane Recovery Tips page.

Dog laying down

Fire ant bites (stings) on dogs

Due to the amount of time dogs spend outdoors, the possibility of them being stung by fire ants is high. Young animals, caged animals, and elderly animals with mobility issues are at an even higher risk of fire ant attack. Additionally, dog food attracts fire ants. Once they’re alerted to the source of food, fire ants often swarm a food bowl, making it not only difficult but also dangerous for your pet to eat.

Dogs can easily disturb a fire ant mound just by playing or digging nearby. The areas most vulnerable to stings are those with little or no hair, such as ears, nose, or abdomen. If fire ants sting your dog, move him or her from the source of the fire ants immediately and remove all ants by brushing them off. Be sure to protect yourself from stings while doing this. If the attack is severe or if your dog is behaving abnormally afterward, consider a visit to the veterinarian

Fire ants are the epitome of “small but mighty.” Their size is no sign of the pain they can inflict. Protect yourself and your family from these stinging pests with the help of Ehrlich Pest Control. Even if you are unsure about whether the pests on your property are fire ants, one of our specialists will gladly do an inspection. 

Contact us to schedule one today.

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