Fire Ants by PJ LaRue Smith
It’s a perfect day, you’ve got a glass of iced tea in one hand, lounging in your favorite
lawn chair, and all is well in your world. Suddenly, OUCH, OUCH, OUCH! Iced tea and chair
go flying in two different directions, and you’re up like a shot doing a wild slapping, stomping
dance. To anyone living in the southern US, the reason for this bizarre behavior is obvious – fire
The “imported red fire ant”, is the one most are familiar with in Texas. As the name
implies, these ants are imported, red, and will cause a burning sensation, much like a match on
the skin. Afterward (within 24 hours after being stung) a white pustule will form and the worst
part of the itching (which lasts for approximately three days) begins. Just as is the case for bee
and wasp stings, those who are particularly sensitive to the ant stings can suffer far more severe
reactions – anaphylactic shock and even death. According to a leaflet produced by the Texas
Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Society, “fire ants are the most common cause of allergic
reactions to stinging insects in Texas”; “Severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) occur in 1 – 6 %
of people stung by fire ants and occasionally these reactions may be fatal”.
Here are a few tips to avoid being stung:
- TEACH children and visitors about fire ants and their hazard.
- LOOK before you step, or put a chair, child seat, etc. for any sign of a mound (even a
- small one) or foraging ant activity. If highly sensitive, place a light colored blanket, or tarp on
- the ground before setting up the lawn chair. (This not only acts as a physical block, but also as a
- visual aid.) When moving pots, look for surface disturbance of the soil, or mound activity at
- drainage hole sites. It is prudent to tap the side of a pot a couple of times and watch for ant
- activity – a clear sign that the pot should be treated before picking it up.
- WEAR protected clothing. When working outside, wear boots, tuck pants inside
- socks, and use gloves when working.
- SPRAY insect repellents on clothing or footwear (these treatments can temporarily
- discourage foraging ants).
- CONTROL ants in areas used most frequently by people or pets.
- AVOID high risk locations. Areas around trash containers, frequently used picnic
- areas, spilled animal feed, due to the ready availability of food, are particularly attractive to fire
- ants. If a large number of mounds are noted, exercise caution when choosing a place to sit – fire
- ants often forage far from their mounds.
Due to worker ants using their jaws (mandibles) to gain leverage to sting, merely
jumping into water or running water across ants will not remove them. The best approach is to
knock them off briskly by hand (or a glove, cloth, etc.). If you are working in the garden and
suddenly find your gloves covered with fire ants – remove your gloves as quickly as possible and
slap any remaining ants off. (If, like myself, you fall into the 1-6 percentile of susceptible
individuals, do not be shy about divorcing yourself of fire ant covered clothing. Failure to do so
CAN become a matter of life and death.)
Texas A&M has an excellent website that covers medical treatment and control of
this bane to outdoor enjoyment at http://fireant.tamu.edu/.