This article ran last week in the Katy Trail Weekly. My feet were attacked by fire ants 16 days ago and I am still itching! I’d attach a picture to this blog but no one wants to see that kind of grossness. Just imagine little feet covered in scabby swollen bumps. Here is why I have a strong dislike of these exotic monsters…
Nothing can ruin your time outside like a run in with an exotic pest such as, fire ants. After the recent rains here in Dallas, you are bound to find a mound when you least expect it. I have the welts on my feet proving these small aggressive ants are ready for battle.
Fire ants are exotic species (not native to the U.S.) introduced around the 1930s. Since their accidental introduction into the U.S., fire ants have quickly established and spread across the country making it to Texas in the early 1950s. “At this point they are still spreading some, but they’ve invaded most of the areas they can survive in,” S. Bradleigh Vinson, professor in the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M University, said. Fire ants love warm weather climates and can survive long periods of droughts. If their tunnel system runs deep, they need little water to sustain their colonies.
The mounds pop up after the rains because the ants are actively working their tunnels, which can be up to 10 feet deep. After a good rainfall, worker ants, who only live about four to six weeks, will be feverishly working to clear out tunnels in their mounds. Try to avoid stepping on or disturbing mounds in any way.
They are known for their sting. When a fire ant nest is disturbed, they aggressively emerge to defend their home. The ants swarm up your legs and when your leg jerks, the movement stimulates the ants to bite and sting at the same time. Next thing you know your stripping your shoes and pants off trying to get away from the ants. The sting deposits venom, which results in an allergic reaction that feels like “fire.” Some individuals, less than one percent of the population, are severely allergic to fire ant venom. Most of us can expect a week of raging itching blisters.
Some exotic species become invasive, meaning they out compete native species for resources and thrive. Fire ants are thriving. Fire ants are omnivores eating plants and native ants, insects and can even eat small snakes and lizards. Our threatened Texas horned lizard declining population is in part due to the introduction of the exotic fire ants. Fire ants outcompete one of the horned lizards main food items, the native harvester ant. One horned lizard can eat up to 70-100 harvester ants per day but won’t touch the exotic fire ant species.
Why can’t we just get rid of the fire ants? As Vinson said, “Dealing with fire ants is not easy.” There are several products on the market to eradicate fire ant populations and just as many home remedies. Introducing a chemical insecticide into the environment can have harmful effects on the natural ecosystem. Utilizing bait that targets fire ant species takes time to work and is best done in the fall. Fire ant mounds are controlled by a queen. To kill the mound, you must kill the queen by having worker ants take the bait back to her. One of the problems is more and more mounds have multiple queens in the same mound making them more difficult to eradicate.
After a spring rain, mated females fly and begin a new colony where they land. The reproduction rates of fire ants are fast. The colony of ants can split, multiple queens can form, and entire colonies can move. There are some reports, if you disturb the colony enough, the fire ants will move to a nearby undisturbed location. Annoy your neighbors enough, and hopefully they will find a new home. Unfortunately, even an abandoned or dead fire ant home can cause problems from mound sinks, which are depressions in the land where their mound was.
Fire ants are the product of human introduction. This is just one of the many exotic species wreaking havoc on our environment. The hope is the more we support our native species and help control exotics, our native ecosystems will recover. As Vinson said, “Someday it will all straighten out again, but it takes time.”
Until then, good luck fighting the fierce fire ants.