The Fire Ant

The Fire Ant

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The Fire Ant (general overview and personal perspectives)

     

The “Fire Ant” is one of the most feared migratory arthropods in North America. The first non-native species was introduced into the Port of Mobile, Alabama, starting in 1919, through soil ballast, from South American ships, being dumped ashore. The black fire ant (Solenopsis richteri Forel) arrived sometime in 1919, and the red fire ant (Solenopsis invicta Buren) sometime in the late 1930’s; both much more aggressive and harsh than their two sister species of fire ants, the Tropical fire ant (Solenopsis xyloni McCook) and the Southern fire ant (Solenopsis geminata Fabricius), which are considered native to North America. The presence of imported fire ants within United States boarders was first reported in 1929.

     Currently, the IFA (imported fire ant) is found in eleven states (over 300 million acres) , with sporadic, isolated showings as far west as California and as far north as Kansas and Maryland. The surge in fire ant migration came right after world war two, with the housing boom. The migration of fire ants was mostly associated with the mass movement of grass sod and decorative plants for landscaping purposes. However, “In 1958, the Federal Fire Ant Quarantine was implemented [to] try to limit the spread of fire ants from the quarantined areas. Hay, sod, plants and used soil moving equipment must me inspected and/or treated before being moved out of the quarantine area.” The IFA migration methods include “…seasonal relocations, migration in nursery stock, natural flights, and after floods rafting on water. Ants can be blown by the wind 12 miles during mating flights. They can “hitchhike” on birds [or other animals] or mass together to form a floating ball to ride out a flood.” It is estimated that a fire ant colony can expand 20-30 miles per year based on mating flights alone.

     The IFA migration fear is due to damage to people, but also damage to crops and property. Currently, the IFA is known “…as damaging 57 different species of cultivated plants” including wheat, cotton, corn, sorghum seed, soybean, blueberry, peanut, sunflower, watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumber, pecan, eggplant, okra, strawberry, and potato in addition to property, fire ants have been associated with may outdoor electrical equipment, due to their strong attraction to electrical and magnetic fields and impulses. The effected items where fire ants have been known to nest and be found include: gasoline pumps, traffic lights, electrical and telephone transformers/boxes, air conditions (many, many cases) heat pumps, TV’s, computers, walls and plumbing insulation, water meters, insulation of electrical wiring causing electrical disruptions, and beside and beneath roadways.

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There have been reported cases of roadways collapsing because of fire ants removing massive amounts of soil beneath the road. Because of their mounds and nesting habits, fire ants have caused many closing of athletic fields, school playgrounds, and campgrounds (much of this closing is due to the fear and stigma behind the fire ant. This fear and stigma will be discussed later.)

     More than its damage-causing tendency, the fire ant is feared because of its fierce sting. The fire ant sting is characteristic, with its “fiery” burning sensation, giving the ant its (common) name. Areas where there is a large colony can, and should be, considered dangerous. “In infested areas, fire ant stings occur more frequently than bee, wasp, hornet, and yellowjacket stings. Stepping on a fire and mound is almost unavoidable, especially when walking in heavily infested areas. Furthermore, many mounds are not easily seen, with many lateral tunnels extending several feet away from the mound just beneath the soil surface. Ants defend these tunnels as part of their mound.” The ant grabs onto the skin with barbed mandibles, then doubles over its abdomen and stings with it “stinger” (an ovipositor, considering the only fire ants that sting are the workers, who are sterile females.) The fire ant will sting even after its venom sack is depleted of its venom. It is known that once a fire ant nest is disturbed, or one ant releases an alarm pheromone, ants will swarm the nest and the area around it, in defense, for over 8 minutes. “In the U.S, they will storm anything that threatens their mound or looks like food, whether it be old people, crawling babies, injured waterfowl, newborn rabbits and fawns, bedridden hospital patients, or you just walking along.” “A person who stops to stand on a mound or on one of its tunnels, or who leans against a fence post included in the defended area, can have hundreds of ants rush out to attack.” Usually, the ants will be swarming a person (or animal) for 10 seconds before attacking and stinging the victim; this allows more ants to swarm because the victim does not know they are being attacked. “Although a single fire ant sting hurts less than a bee or was sting, the effect of multiple stings is impressive. Multiple stings are common, not only because hundreds of ants may have attacked, but also because individual ants can administer several stings. Each sting usually results in the formation of a pustule within 6-24 hours. The majority of stings are uncomplicated, but secondary infections may occur if the pustule is broken, and scars may last for several months. Severe infections requiring skin grafting or amputation have been known to occur from [infected] fire ant stings.” It is estimated that fire ants sting more than 5 million Americans every year. “More than 25,000 people seek medical attention each year for painful fire ant bites.” It is said that about a dozen Americans die of their fire ant wounds (or complications thereof) each year. With such high numbers, it is no wonder that there is such a fear of these pesky little creatures. “An important indirect effect of the presence of fire ants is just the fear of being stung. Fear and anxiety about fire ants may limit the use of sites where fire ants are present. In some parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, and campsites are not used simply because of the fear of the ants in the area.”

     The fire ant, like any other living organism, has to eat. The fire ant eats mainly liquids, however, when only solid food is available, the fire ant will cut the food into manageable pieces and carry it back to the colony, to share with the others. The first to be fed the protein-based material gathered is the queen. The rest of the colony will eat what is left over. The fire ant gathers liquids by sucking up the substance, and regurgitating it back at the colony, to share. When a food is of solid substance, the ants releases enzymes upon the food to liquefy it, where then it can be sucked back up and fed to the queen and then other workers and winged fire ants. In addition to the above-mentioned crops, fire ants are widely known to eat saplings, wildflowers, fruits and grasses, honeydew, sugars, oils, seeds, and insects. Of all the resources available to the fire ant to eat, the fire ant looks for items with the most protein in it. Fire ants are known to attack wild animals, including snakes, mice, and turtles. But above and beyond all, the fire ant enjoys insects most of all. If left alone, the fire ant is an effective control of fleas, flies, boll weevils, sugarcane borers, ticks, and cockroaches.

     Above and beyond all, the fire ant is an invasive ant that can become quite dangerous, if you are not protected. Upon heavy rains, whole colonies will invade homes and take refuge in walls and in the comfort of carpeting. This leaves potentially defenseless people, such as bedridden people and infants at a high risk. It is almost enough to know that massive control is needed when there is a countrywide fear of these little ants. Since the 1950’s, the fire ant has been the subject of huge governmental control attempts. The federal government has used everything from quarantine to massive chemical sprays (and laying in terms of solid chemical pellets.) With all these attempts, very few have proven successful, for one reason or the other. Either the chemical kills too many kinds of insects, or the fire ant does not feed upon it. Many chemicals and pellets have caused drastic decreases in mouse and snake populations, in addition to affecting domestic livestock, and therefore have been banned. Currently, the US government is taking it upon individual landowners to control their own fire ant problems. (The landowners, mostly farmers have many reasons to do so. For one, fire ant mounds often damage cultivating and mowing equipment. For another, more important reason, hand-picked crops, like blueberries, are being left to rot because nobody will go into the fire ant infested fields to pick the crop.) The landowners are now using individual mound baits. These are protein based, poisoned sponges or pellets. The idea is that when the workers get the food, which is high in protein, they will immediately feed it to the queen, causing her to die, and therefore the colony to fallout. These methods are effective, however, on a slow, mound-to-mound basis. “People have to learn to deal with fire ants over the long term. The days of massive chemical treatments, I think, are pretty much over… We are working on introducing a number of organisms from South America to provide biological control for fire ants, maybe some diseases of the ant, some parasites, and probably even some predators. But none of those are going to be the golden bullet.”

     On a personal and final note. My grandfather, who lives in Florida, near Tampa, has a small blueberry farm, where he, of course, grows blueberries. Upon one visit, a long while back, I was maybe 12; my brother and I were wrestling (funny, how I let an 8 year old kick my butt…. but never mind.) In this area, walking (or rolling) into a fire ant mound is unavoidable, and so I did. Well, not to mention, I got the crap bit out of me, and I was covered in blisters, and no matter what I did, I could not stop itching. But I’ll tell you, when they sting, the hurt. It is a burning sensation inside your skin that you can’t get rid of. OK, OK, there is more to the story. 4 days later, we went to Disneyland, where we stayed in a cabin in some sort of forest, owned by Disney. I distinctly remember one day, as we were out at a small snack bar, an adult (older male, but at that time registered as adult) asked me if I had been bitten by a lot of mosquitoes (as my legs were pot marked). I replied no, that they were ant bites, and upon this, I got a stern lecture, in front of my grandpa on how dangerous fire ants were and how stupid it was to mess with them. And the adult was right. But I must say, I have not learned. Still, whenever I go the Florida, I drive golf balls on my grandfather’s farm, using fire ant mounds as tees. Its always fun to have the ants swarm the ball before you drive it.

Cited Works

Websites:

1.     www.safe2use.com/pests/fireants/factoids
     This is a home page for many of the ‘safe2use’ citing in this paper. The webmistris notes, however, that much of the material in the website is from Steve Tvedten’s book “The Best Control (2nd Edition)”

2.     ipmworld.umn.edu/chapters/lockley.htm

Text Documents:

3.     I also used a report to the Department of Agriculture entitled “Control of Imported Fire Ants” by Homer Collins. This was a difficult piece to find, but it is a microfishe at Owen. It is number A 1.36.1807

     
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