Red imported fire ants (RIFA) are tiny stinging insects, native to South America, that can also be found in predominantly subtropical southern states in the United States. They’ve become increasingly problematic to human health since the mid 20th century when international cargo introduced RIFA to the US.
Fire ants were named after the burning sensation inflicted from toxic venom injected through their abdomen. This is especially painful the more fire ants there are. RIFA are of the genus Solenopsis invicta, invicta meaning “undefeated” in Latin. This invasive insect has adapted extraordinary survival skills that both fascinate and baffle scientists and engineers alike.
The fascinating biology of floating fire ants
What makes these tiny invaders so interesting is their ability to take on liquid and solid form in groups. Fire ants protect themselves and their queen from harsh weather by instinctively linking legs to form large structures which are often referred to as rafts. Though these creatures are small, their grip is mighty.
Fire ants are land insects by nature, commonly found in yards, playgrounds, and even the infrastructure of homes. But when hurricanes and flash floods force them from their underground tunnels, thousands of fire ants—an entire colony—form floating clusters where they can continue to colonize as drifters for miles until they reach land. They can survive this way for weeks!
What’s more, it’s nearly impossible for fire ants to drown because of their waxy exoskeletons and small hairs that collect air bubbles. This, paired with skillful mechanical properties, makes floating fire ants practically waterproof. These expert survivalists are bonded so closely together that air bubbles can’t escape when fully submerged in water. Those air bubbles then serve as an oxygen supply until the ants reemerge. If a straggler falls off the raft, it simply rides an air bubble to the surface where it reconnects with the rest of the colony.
RIFA are incredibly strong and move harmoniously as one unit, disbanding and building bridges as needed for survival. In fact, they’ve been known to form towers for height and can push through any material similar to syrup or mud. Fire ants also possess elastic properties that keep them together, bouncing immediately back after an impact or pressure. This resilience is what prevents injury and separation.
See these behaviors in action here:
Dangers of floating fire ants
While the science behind these structures is undoubtedly fascinating, floating fire ants threaten human and pet welfare. They deliver a dangerous, venomous sting, which in extreme cases can result in anaphylactic shock.
At first glance, a raft of fire ants floating on the surface of floodwater appears to be nothing more than leftover debris from a tropical storm. This natural ability to blend in makes them experts at deception, which is ironic because fire ants are blind. They rely on their other senses to latch onto safety. This is particularly problematic for anyone swimming in or wading through fire ant-infested water, including family pets.
Fire ants in floodwaters
Floating fire ant rafts often find their way into piles of debris. This is a particular concern in the aftermath of hurricanes and major floods. In times such as these, people take to boats to navigate the floodwaters. But fire ants are looking to escape the water too. In search of solid ground, fire ants may climb onto boats or paddles and then find their way to you. Wizzie Brown, program specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service said of floating fire ants, “The unfortunate thing is they don’t care what it is that’s dry…if it’s a house that they hit and there are people on the roof stranded, they will go up there as well because that’s them trying to escape the floodwaters.”
Hurricane rescue and cleanup crews battle a number of hazardous conditions in murky waters such as snakes, sharp objects, and fallen electrical lines. Floating fire ants only amplify stress and increase public safety concern. Homeowners can take precautionary measures to lower the fire ant population before a tropical storm hits. Keep your family and pets safe this season by calling Ehrlich for a free quote at 888-984-0186.
What to do if you spot floating fire ants
The best advice to follow when encountering a raft of RIFA is to avoid contact altogether. Don’t attempt to drown or separate a colony because they will cling desperately to anything for shelter. Remember, their sole purpose is to protect the queen, so RIFA will move quickly out of devastation and sting every step of the way.
Fortunately, colonies of fire ants forming around your home are preventable, before and after flooding. Contact the experts at Ehrlich today for safe removal.