Fire ants are a fairly small species of ant, but sizes of ants within the same colony can vary widely. Reddish, brown, or black in color, they can range anywhere from less than a tenth of an inch to more than a quarter of an inch in length. Their biggest identifier on sight is their heads, which are significantly lighter in color than their abdomen, typically copper. The species found here in the United States is that of the red imported fire ant, and it is not native. Originally from South America, they have been introduced to various countries around the world, particularly warmer coastal climates such as Caribbean and Asian islands and Australia. However, in the areas they do inhabit, they can be found in any environment, from deserts to rainforests and even buildings and electrical equipment.
Fire ants are a colony-dwelling ant, with the colonies being housed in large dirt mounds. These mounds do not appear to have any entrances, as the ants come and go through excavated foraging tunnels, sometimes far from the nest. Foraging is done predominantly during the day, especially on hot or humid days, but they will also forage at night. Diet varies widely, from dead animals, other insects, and seeds. Honeydew is also a favored food, and they will cultivate aphids to produce the substance, as most ants do. Within the colony, numbers can range from only a few to up to 250,000 individuals. Colonies are started with a mature ant queen, or sometimes multiple queens, and these queens can live for many years.
Fire ants are a particularly worrisome pest due to one simple reason: venom. Fire ants can sting, and it is often how they capture prey. It is also used for defense, and it is estimated that 14 million people are on the receiving end of this defense mechanism each year. Humans react very poorly to the venom used by fire ants, and it can cause swelling, an intense burning sensation, pustules, and can even result in anaphylactic shock and death. Not only can they cause serious health issues, though; they can also cause severe structural or electrical damage. Nest formation can damage building foundations and worker ants, who are attracted to electricity, can destroy electrical equipment. Additionally, these ants also have a detrimental impact on crops and can cause harm or even death to livestock as well. While it is important to keep the dangers of fire ants in mind while traveling, thankfully these ants have not yet made a home as far north as Wisconsin. Here in the States, these ants have only established themselves in the south, particularly around the Gulf of Mexico but into California as well.
Did You Know?
The red imported fire ant is one of the most studied insects!