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Part 2 – Imported Fire Ants

This is the second article in our Spring & Summer Series of “Safety Tips” featuring nature’s hazards in the field.

In the April edition of “Safety Tips,” we discussed the “Terrible Trio” of poisonous plants: poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. As we discussed, these poisonous plants affect people most often during the summer months than at other times of the year, and can be found throughout most of the United States . In this month’s edition, we will discuss a regional summertime pest, imported fire ants, which are most common in the Southern and Western States. In next month’s edition, we will discuss deer ticks and Lyme disease, a problem most common in the Northern States.

Imported Fire Ants – An Introduction
Imported fire ants are aggressive, reddish brown to black ants that are 1/8 to 1/4 inches long. They construct nests that are often visible as dome-shaped mounds of soil, sometimes as large as 3 feet across and 1 1/2 feet in height. In sandy soils, mounds are flatter and less visible. Fire ants usually build mounds in sunny, open areas such as lawns, pastures, cultivated fields, and meadows, but they are not restricted to these areas. Mounds or nests may be located in rotting logs, around trees and stumps, under pavement and buildings, and occasionally indoors. When their nests are disturbed, numerous fire ants will quickly run out of the mound and attack any intruder. These ants are notorious for their painful, burning sting that results in a pustule and intense itching, which may persist for 10 days. Infections may occur if pustules are broken. Some people have allergic reactions to fire ant stings that range from rashes and swelling to paralysis, or anaphylactic shock. In rare instances, severe allergic reactions cause death.

In addition to stinging humans, imported fire ants can sting pets, livestock, and wildlife. Crop losses are also reported due to fire ants feeding on seedlings and even citrus trees. Harvesting machinery used on farms can be damaged by hitting hard fire ant mounds often found in clay soils. Electrical equipment and utility housings may serve as fire ant nest sites, sometimes resulting in short circuits.

The term imported fire ants generally refers to two species of ants: the black imported fire ant and the red imported fire ant. The black imported fire ant was accidentally introduced from South America into Mobile , Alabama , around 1918, and now infests a small area in Alabama and northern Mississippi . The red imported fire ant entered the United States probably in the 1930s. It was most likely introduced with cargo or in the soil used as ballast in ships from South America that were unloaded in the Mobile area. In the 1940s and early 1950s the red imported fire ant spread to Florida and other Southern states in nursery stock and sod. Fire ants currently infest over 260 million acres in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Puerto Rico. They have the potential to establish in other areas where average minimum temperatures are above 10°F and rainfall is greater than 10 inches a year, or in irrigated areas. Localized infestations have also been reported in Arizona and Virginia .

How can I avoid being stung by fire ants?
Fire ants are sensitive to vibration or movement and tend to sting when the object they are on moves. For example, when fire ants swarm up a person’s leg, the person usually jerks or moves quickly. One ant stings and this triggers the other ants to sting in response.

Probably the best way to avoid being stung by fire ants is to be aware of your surroundings, and being able to recognize the presence of fire ants and/or their mounds near where you will be working. Remember, if fire ants do get onto your skin, (especially the red imported fire ants) they can cause you some problems. Not only are their bites painful but you could also suffer an infection or serious secondary reaction. If you see or feel fire ants on your skin, try to brush them off as quickly as possible before they have a chance to attach themselves and bite. Fire ants bite to hold on first, and then can sting you repeatedly. Regular insect repellents usually are not effective against fire ants, but there are some steps you can take to avoid exposure. For example, if you must work in proximity to fire ants, try to cover all of your exposed skin areas. Wear a cap or hat, and gloves. A fully buttoned up long sleeve shirt tucked into your pants, and your pants tucked into your work boots can help to keep them off your skin. Some studies also suggest dusting you boots with talcum powder.

How can I self- treat fire ant stings?
The sting of a fire ant causes an immediate burning sensation. They can also sting repeatedly and very quickly. Pustules can often develop after fire ant stings, and you should try to avoid scratching them. First aid treatment for fire ant stings is aimed at preventing infection, which could occur if you do scratch and break the skin or pustules at the sting area.

So, immediately after being stung, try to wash off the area with soap and water, and then alcohol. A thick paste of baking soda and water can also help reduce the pain if applied right after being stung. If more severe reactions occur after being stung, such as difficulty breathing, seek medical help immediately. If you know that you are allergic to fire ant stings, you should see your physician to find out about carrying an emergency kit containing epinephrine (adrenaline).

In this month’s companion “Teck Tips” feature, we show how U-TECK can offer effective solutions for controlling fire ants in small areas where utility and other electrical equipment are located.

Footnote: Excerpts were taken from the following document for some of the above information contained in this issue of “Safety Tips”

Document ENY226, one of a series of the Entomology and Nematology Department , Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida . Original publication date February 1991. Reviewed May 2003. Visit the EDIS Web Site at .

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