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Fire Ant Information. Got Fire Ants?
Who Are These Fiends?
Fire ants are known for their lively and aggressive behavior, swarming over anyone or anything that disturbs their nest, often attacking wild animals, baby animals, pets or people, in rare instances, even killing them. Their painful stings affect about 40% of people in infested areas each year. Twenty million people a year are stung by fireants in the United States!
When these pesky critters invade an area, they do it with a vengeance. There will be enormous numbers of them which can dramatically reduce populations of native ants, other insects, and even ground-nesting wildlife. Watch out. They invade homes, school yards, athletic fields, golf courses, and parks. They will damage crops and electrical equipment, costing humans billions of dollars each year in repairs and eradication. Texas A&M University estimated the cost to the state of Texas alone was over $1 billion per year. It is best to call an exterminator as soon as you notice an infestation.
Fire Ant Facts
Masters of the Earth
Ants have been digging through the dirt for eons. Tunneling out of jungles and forests and into back yards of humans on every continent except Antarctica. Ant fossils date back to the times of dinosaurs.
They are one of the strongest animals on Earth, with the ability to lift a seed five times their weight. Elephants are only able to lift objects one fifth their weight.
There are more than a million different kinds of insects in the world, most of them solitary insects. Fireants are social insects. They live in communities and depend on one another to gather food, help build the nest, raise and care for their young, and protect themselves from enemies. Without the support of their colony, a single fireant could not survive for very long.
Red Imported FireAnt (RIFA)
The Southern Pest
The red fire ant was accidentally introduced into the United States in 1929, when a cargo ship that had used soil as ballast arrived in Mobile, Alabama from South America. (Thanks a lot!) But South Americans don't have nearly the problem that the United States does. They only have 20% as many fireants as we do, probably because North America lacks the natural enemies of the pesky critters.
These guys are aggressive! They initially spread throughout Alabama and Florida, but it didn't take them long to invade twelve of our southeastern states and Puerto Rico. In recent years, the fireant has spread as far west as California and as far north as Kansas and Maryland. And they have even made it to the tropical paradise of Hawaii. Today the fireant habitat in the USA covers 300 million acres and it is growing all the time. Although fireants keep marching farther and farther, northerners don't have to loose sleep over it because researches predict that they will not be able to survive in areas where soil temperatures drop to near freezing for more than 2 to 3 weeks. It is wise to contact an exterminator for pest control services as soon as you notice an infestation.
Identifying Fire Ants
Don't be fooled. Fireants look like ordinary house or garden ants, but have some distinguishing characteristics.
If you are not sure if what you have is fire ants, try this. Find a long branch . Disturb the dirt in the mound and stick the branch into the top of it. (Be sure to stay as far away as possible.) Fire ants will climb right up what they perceive as an invader (the stick). Other ants will run around in a fit trying to protect the queen.
Anatomy of a Fire Ant
They have those tiny waists, called petioles, so that they can wiggle their end parts freely and twist and turn their bodies in the nest. It also makes it easier for them to sneak into tiny cracks in your house! Grrr!
Apparently, fireants are fastidious little critters. They clean dirt off their antennae by dragging them through the strigil, a comb, in the notch of their front legs.
Scent glands on the abdomen of the fireant, emits chemical odors that they use to mark trails when foraging food. (That's how they do it!)
Facts About What Fire Ants Eat
Fire ants are not picky eaters. They are omnivores and will eat almost any plant or animal material, including other insects, ground-nesting animals, mice, turtles, snakes, and other vertebrates, young trees, seedlings, plant bulbs, saplings, fruit and grass. When foraging for food, the oldest and most expendable 20% or so of the colony’s workers (so much for retirement) explore within 50 - 100 feet of the nest in a looping pattern.
Even though worker fireants can chew and cut with the mandibles, they can only swallow liquids. When they encounter liquid food in the field, they swallow it to one of their two stomachs. One stomach saves food to share with the colony (isn't that nice of them) and the other one is to digest food for themselves. Solid food is cut to carrying size and brought back to the colony for "processing." Fireants prefer protein foods (that is, insects and meats) but will feed on almost anything and everything.
By regurgitating their food from the one stomach, fireant workers are able to share their it with the nest. Others lick or suck up the liquid (yuck) and the nest is fed equally. This food sharing is why slow-acting poison baits can be used to eradicate the nests.
Life Cycle of Fire Ants
There are four stages to a fireant's metamorphosis:
Total time from the egg stage to adult fireants averages 30 days. Worker fireants can live up to 180 days.
North American fireants are unique (aren't we lucky?) in that they form colonies with multiple queens. The queen can live up to 2 to 7 years and in that time will bear 1,500 to 1,600 eggs per day. Some colonies may have 100,000 to 500,000 fireants. (Sends shivers up your spine!)
Work Style of Fire Ants
Fireants are extremely organized. Every fireant has a job to do. They go about their job day after day, never stopping.
Young fireants help the queen deliver her eggs and tend to the larvae.
Tunnel diggers dig new tunnels as the population grows, making room for increased traffic and new rooms for eggs and larvae.
Guard fireants stay near the entrance of the mound, blocking strangers from entering. (With a population of 100,000 - 500,000, how do they know who lives there and who doesn't?)
Winged male and female fireants go on mating flights in the spring and summer and start new colonies. Shortly after mating, the male dies and the female becomes a queen. She flies anywhere from 100 feet to 10 miles to start a new colony.
And foragers, the oldest of the colony, search for food.
Fire Ant Talk
Signals and pheromones (which are chemical substances excreted by animals, especially insects, to influence the behavior or physiology of others of the same species - So now you know) play an important role in the complex organization of fireant societies. fireants spend most of their time in direct contact with the ground. When a worker fireant comes across food on her way home, she will leave a trail along the ground, which in short time other fireants will follow. When they return home they reinforce the trail, bringing other fireants, until the food is depleted, after which the trail is not reinforced and slowly disappears.
The violent death of a fireant will emit an alarm pheromone that in high concentration sends other fireants in the vicinity into attack frenzy, but in lower amounts, attracts them. A few fireants use what is referred to as propaganda pheromones to confuse their enemies. (And we thought the government invented propaganda.)
Fireants, like other insects, use their antennae to smell. Antennae provide information about direction. And with the use of pheromones, fireants are able to exchange information about one another's health and nutrition. Fireants can also detect what task group (i.e., foraging or nest maintenance) each other belongs to. The queen is able to communicate with the workers to determine which will begin raising new queens.
What's in a Name
Fire Ant's are currently known by two names, Solenopsis wagneri, and Solenopsis invicta. The confusion rests in a Taxonomist's error. The original name for the Red Imported Fire Ant was Solenopsis wagneri, but a second Taxonomist came along, and without realizing it, gave the species a second name, Solenopsis invicta. The story would be much simpler if the second name had not become widely used. However, eventually the error was found, and the age old rule of international nomenclature states that the first name is the correct name. Since the second name was widespread, commonly understood to be a better, more appropriate, and easier to remember name, in June 2001 The International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature ruled for the second name. So, the correct name for the Imported Fire Ant is Solenopsis invicta, but please do not be surprised if you still hear people using Solenopsis wagneri.
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