What is it
The imported fire ant is just that: an ant, imported from South America, with a sting that feels like fire! Why is that such a problem? Because these ants are aggressive and have a painful sting that causes mild to severe allergic reactions in most people, and they like to live in areas where humans and farm animals spend time. Ants are social; therefore, they tend to react with pack like behavior when threatened. IFAs are very aggressive and use special chemicals called pheromones to communicate when there is a threat to the colony. This pheromone causes them to swarm the threat and multiple stings are likely to happen, often at the same time! Unfortunately, there are three species of imported fire ants in the United States, the red imported fire ant, the black imported fire ant, and the hybrid fire ant. The hybrid fire ant is a hardier cross between the red and black fire ants, capable of reproducing. They all have a painful sting, are aggressive and are invasive pests.
The black and red imported fire ants, were introduced by ship. When imported materials from South America were brought into the ports of Mobile, Alabama, black and red fire ants came with them. This happened between the 1900’s and 1930’s. The hybrid fire ant is a result of the two species breeding with each other. Once the imported fire ants were brought into the United States, there were no natural barriers to prevent them from establishing nests and starting to spread across the South. The only natural barrier we have in North America is our temperature; the cold temperatures in the northern most regions of our continent are acting as a barrier. The hybrid and red imported fire ants are not cold tolerant species. However, the black appears to be moving farther north!
How does it cause harm?
IFAs are problematic in two ways: they irritate and hurt people and animals, sometimes causing death, and they build large hard mounds that can damage lawn and farm equipment. The biggest problem with RIFAs is the health risk it poses to those that are stung. The IFAs, like all venomous ants, have a sting at the end of the abdomen; this sting contains venom that causes mild to severe allergic reactions. Frequently people refer to ant stings as “bites”, this is because the ant will clamp down with its jaws to secure its position before it stings. IFAs can cause death in severe cases, where a large number of ants are involved, or a severe allergy is involved. They can also be fatal to small, young animals that are not able to get away from them. The second problem with IFAs is the mound formed as their home. Mounds can often be very large and are a health hazard for those who have to do lawn or farm work in areas where they are present.
How do we stop it?
The IFA is typically spread through soil and hay. This means it is important to inspect your plants and hay before moving them. Many states have quarantines in place, meaning that these items should not be moved out of the quarantine area. This prevents the IFA from being moved into an area that doesn’t already have them. See our quarantine maps below to make sure that you are not moving IFAs with you!