With the recent rains in Texas, many residents are seeing the emergence of fire ant mounds in their lawns and in fields. These aggressive ants cause harm and damage to people, plants, and animals in both urban and rural areas – according to Texas A&M University researchers it is estimated fire ants cost Texans $1.2 billion annually in property damage and control costs, with residential households making up 50% of the total expense incurred.
What Are Fire Ants?
“Fire ant” is a general name referring to six different species of ants, five of which are found in Texas. Since they all cause damage and harm to humans and animals, there is generally little need for the homeowner to tell them apart. To the naked eye, fire ants resemble ordinary ants. They are very small (average 1/8 to 1/4 inch in length) and are reddish brown to black in color.
They are very aggressive, attacking anytime their mound is disturbed. Fire ants can be dangerous to small animals and humans because of the toxin released from the sting.
Where Are Fire Ants Found?
This biting ant is most commonly found in the southeastern United States including the eastern two-thirds of Texas. Fire ants live in colonies and build mound-shaped nests favoring open, sunny areas. Mature colonies appear as fluffy worked soil and can contain more than 200,000 ants. Fire ant mounds look different from other ant mounds since they do not have a visible opening in the center. Instead, fire ants come and go through an extensive network of underground tunnels.
Undisturbed mounds in rural areas can grow up to 18 inches tall but most are only a few inches. Mounds are often built next to sidewalks, roads, or anywhere fire ants can find food or water – around flowerbeds, landscaped areas, parks, playgrounds, sports fields, and tree trunks or roots.
Even though they are present year-round in Texas, fire ant colonies become more visible after rainfall or heavy irrigation, because the ants are trying to move out of the flooded soil. They are sensitive to temperature and humidity. When the weather gets hot and dry, they tunnel deep into the soil – some as deep as 4 feet – to find cooler temperatures and water. The ant colony seemingly disappears.
FUN FACT: Although fire ants can be extremely dangerous, they are also a very interesting species. Fire ants are social insects that work together in order to survive harsh conditions. During instances in which their homes are threatened by water, fire ants form a raft using their own bodies to reach dry land and keep their queen safe from harm. The colony of fire ants continually take turns being above and below the water level in order to help each ant breathe and remain alive. This adaptation and others like it enable the fire ant species to be tremendously resilient.
Why Are They So Bad?
Fire ants are very aggressive and if their mound is disturbed in any way, worker ants will rush out in large numbers to protect the colony from harm. They will climb up nearby grass and vertical surfaces and attack the person, animal, or thing that disturbed their nest by biting and stinging aggressively and repeatedly. Each ant firmly grasps skin with its jaws and stings many times. Fire ants can pivot at the head and inflict more stings in a circular pattern.
As they bite, fire ants inject a toxin that stings, causing a strong burning, fire-like sensation (hence the name “fire ant”). The sting swells into a bump that can cause a great deal of pain or irritation often with localized swelling. Within 24 to 48 hours, a small itchy pustule (a small, firm blister-like sore) forms around the bite site. Excessive scratching can open the pustules, possibly leading to secondary infection.
The toxin is not deadly for most people, although some are very allergic. The elderly, very young, sick, or those with compromised immune systems may be more affected by the toxin. It is always a good idea to seek medical advice if you believe you have been stung or bitten by a fire ant.
How Can I Avoid Fire Ants?
Although it is impossible to completely eliminate the fire ant population in Texas, you can avoid contact with them and prevent getting stung.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Be sure to regularly look for fire ant mounds around your property. Do not stand on or near nests or areas where they are foraging.
- Watch your step. Pay attention to where you’re standing. Serious incidents occur when a person unknowingly allows several fire ants to get on them, usually when they stand on a mound for more than a few seconds without realizing it.
- Wear protective clothing. Wear boots and/or tuck pant legs into socks to reduce the risk of a bite.
What Do I Do If I Find A Fire Ant Mound In My Yard?
A possible preventative measure is long residual contact insecticide treatments. Your local pest control expert will apply an insecticide to the lawn surface in order to prevent fire ants from settling into the area. Although there are several self-help methods to eliminating fire ant colonies, it is best to contact your local pest control expert in order to eliminate the infestation safely.
What Do I Do If I Get Fire Ants On Me?
- First of all remain calm and do NOT panic.
- Leave the area immediately while quickly brushing the fire ants off using a gloved hand or a cloth. The most effective way to remove fire ants from the skin is with a fast, repetitive brushing motion. Remove the ants that climb up on your body as quickly as possible.
- Quickly strip off shoes, socks, and clothing where the fire ants are stinging you. Shake out the clothing and inspect every fold before put¬ting them back on.
- Do not try to shake them off – fire ants hold on tightly with their jaws so they will not just fall off. Do not try to rinse them off with water – it just makes them hold on and sting in another spot.
What Do I Do If I Get Stung?
People vary greatly in their reactions to fire ant stings. Most people just suffer a burning sensation, itching, and pustules with no lasting effects. Those who may be sensitive to fire ant venom may see the sting area become slightly swollen.
- Ease the burning and itching by using ice, cold compresses, or painkiller sprays and ointments such as over-the-counter antihistamine products.
- Treat the pustules, whether intact or open, like any other small wound. Keep it clean.
Watch for problems if a person is stung more than a few times or has an impaired immune system due to a medical condition (e.g., heart condition, diabetes, etc.). The important thing is to watch for severe reactions. Although rare, seek emergency medical attention immediately if you experience any of the following as it could be a sign of a life-threatening allergic reaction:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Faintness or dizziness
- Loss of consciousness
- Chest pain
- Tightness in chest or throat
- Hives or rashes
- Serious swelling
- Severe sweating
- Slurred speech
Like many pests, fire ants are a fact of life in Texas. Being aware is the best way to stay safe.