Thanks to Mother Nature, people moving to the Southern or Southeastern United States are receiving a warm welcome. A very warm welcome. With temperatures in the triple digits most of the summer, most transplants expect to ditch the winter coats.

    But most don’t expect the baptism of fire they get while walking barefoot through their new lawns. We’re not talking about a few pesky little worker ants that invade your outdoor picnic. We’re referring to those red imported fire ants (RIFA for short), a species of insects that invaded the southern U.S. in the 1930s.

    Fire ants’ damage is different than most ant species, which bite or spray foric acid. The fire ant bites with its mandibles only to get a grip so it can deliver toxic alkaloid venom called solenopsin from a stinger on its abdomen. © / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The fire ants, or Solenopsis invicta, might be small, but they are fierce. Their bite and sting can be extremely painful, and in some cases, deadly. Small children and those with allergies often have severe reactions from the toxic venom injected by the ants. The bites leave a series of pustules that itch, swell, and often become infected. You can avoid infection and the burning sensation by being proactive.

    How to Treat Fire Ant Stings and Bites

    • Applying cold compresses to the bites immediately.
    • Apply a hydrocortisone cream on the bites to relieve itching.
    • Take an antihistamine to prevent itching and a minor allergic reaction.
    • Apply an antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin to the stings to prevent an infection.
    • Soak in an oatmeal bath to reduce itching.

    The swarms don’t just target people. The pests will go after deer, quail, songbirds, toads, and other critters that are beneficial to our ecosystem. Large colonies have been known to go after grazing cattle, stripping a carcass down to the bone in seconds.

    Spreading Through South, and Beyond

    A USDA study showed where fire ants are — and where you can expect them to spread.

    Agriculture scientists at Texas A&M University think the critters stowed away in shipping crates from their native South America and entered through ports in southern Alabama, and Texas. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture report the invasive species now “infest more than 367,000,000 acres in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Puerto Rico.”  

    However they got in, they are very unwelcome guests, especially for homeowners new to the region who often find out the hard way just what a headache fire ants can be.

    Electrical Damage

    Adding fuel to the fire is the damage the ants can do to your electrical system. Entomologists at Texas A&M found that the pests have an irresistible attraction to electric fields and wiring. It doesn’t take long for a swarm to wreak havoc in your air conditioning system or a traffic light. The Texas Department of Transportation estimates fire ants cause $140 million worth of damage to the traffic lights in the state each year. 

    The USDA puts the cost of the total annual damage in the U.S. at $6.7 billion. That’s why local pest control companies are teaming up with agriculture researchers and landscapers to fight fire with fire. Andy Howard, with Andy Howard’s Pest Management in Austin, Texas, says fire ants can do more damage to your lawn and home than termites. “This ant species can create hundreds of ugly mounds when they nest in your backyard and ruin a well-groomed lawn in no time.” The ants can turn a beautiful, expensive lawn into a mess.

    And there’s an even bigger problem. Howard says they can also get inside your house rather easily and nest in piles of laundry and bedding. One Texas couple, a customer of Howard’s, learned they had a fire ant problem when the critters bit them in their bed.

    Howard recommends quarterly mound treatments of fire ant-killing pesticides. He spreads fire ant bait around the mounds in the spring, before the ants form new colonies. He repeats the process in the summer and fall. The pesticide will kill the swarms and keep the queens from starting new fire ant colonies.

    While TxDOT is currently experimenting with electric-shock traps, the USDA is looking into the fire ant’s natural predators including the Phorid fly, which unfortunately did not migrate to the U.S. with the invading fire ant. The flies could be especially beneficial in large agricultural areas and cattle ranches, where it’s too costly and dangerous to use pesticides. Until they can figure out a way to breed more of the fire ant’s natural enemies, they recommend fire ant control products such as Amdro and Talstar. Keep in mind, these need to be applied directly to the fire ant mounds. Pets must be kept away from the treated areas for 24 hours. 

    “When you live in the hot, humid South,” Howard reminds us. “It’s impossible to completely extinguish fire ants, but it is possible to control infestations. And the experts trying to bring in one pest to kill another one might just be playing with fire!” 

    Main image: An unlucky scientist accidentally knelt in a fire ant mound, and was stung 250 times in short order. The venom in the fire ants’ bites quickly raised blisters. Credit: USDA