The term fire ant, or thief ant, describes over 200 species within the genus Solenopsis. Common in South America and the Caribbean, these red-tinted legions have been inflicting painful bites and agonizing stings in America for almost 100 years. If you’re from a Southern or Western state, you’re likely familiar with these little devils, and if you’ve never crossed their path, consider yourself lucky.
Unfortunately, fire ants can be difficult to properly identify, as they share many similarities to other, less dangerous species. We compiled this handy guide to help you better spot these aggressive insects and manage them if your home has been invaded.
What is a Fire Ant?
The most common fire ant in the U.S. is the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). This highly aggressive ant species is common throughout the Southern and Western portions of the United States. These ants are famous for their red color, burning stings, territorial nature, and fiery temperament. They were introduced to the U.S. Southern Coast in the 1930s and immediately thrived in its warm, tropical climates. Since then, they’ve spread thousands of miles, mostly through contaminated soil shipments.
What Do Fire Ants Look Like?
Fire ants are a smaller species, measuring between one-sixteenth of an inch to one-fifth of an inch. They have a dark reddish-brown color, with the core of their bodies red, becoming a darker rust brown toward the tip of the abdomen. Depending on the exact fire ant species, this color may vary and can often resemble other local ants.
One surefire way to identify this pest is by closely examining its abdomen. The section which connects the ant’s thorax (main body) to its abdomen (large, dark rear section) is called a petiole. The petiole is a small connective segment or stalk that, on most ants, is short and typically difficult to notice. On a fire ant, however, it’s much longer, with two segments, and gives it an elongated appearance toward its rear. Another way to identify a fire ant is through its stinger or unique mouthparts. However, differentiating it with these body parts is difficult, requiring a magnifying glass.
What States Have Fire Ants?
Fire ants are present along the Southern border of the U.S., with sightings as far up the East Coast as Maryland, all the way to California. The states where fire ants are most commonly found are:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
Where Do Fire Ants Nest?
Fire ants like to construct their nests in warm, sunny areas. Spotting one of these mounds on your property is one of the easiest ways to identify a fire ant infestation. These mounds are built from loose soil, have a domed top, are about a foot tall, and can be over 2 feet wide. Fire ants build mounds with any type of soil and often cluster them together. These mounds resemble gopher holes but lack an opening at the top.
Fire ants often nest in open fields, lawns, roadsides, meadows, parks, playgrounds, and pastures. If not removed or forced to relocate, fire ant colonies can extend as far as 8 feet in all directions and up to 20 feet down. Typical colonies possess 300,000 to 500,000 ants that will forage up to 300 feet from their mounds.
Do Fire Ants Get in Homes?
Like all ants, fire ants will spread out from their nests while searching for food. If your home is close enough to a fire ant mound, they won’t think twice before sneaking inside. Fire ants can find their way into your home through small cracks in walls, screen openings, HVAC units, and under doorframes. Fire ants are attracted to readily available food and water sources, such as:
- Overflowing trash
- Food crumbs
- Leaky pipes
- Standing water
- Large amounts of other insects
- Piles of debris like lawn clippings, leaves, or compost
When fire ants are drawn to your property, they’ll likely nest around trees, pipes, large plants, your lawn, or under outdoor structures. Fire ant infestations can lead to damaged plants and electrical systems, as well as uneven turf.
What Seasons Are Fire Ants Most Active?
Fire ants can be a problem in every season but winter, but they’re the most active throughout spring and fall. As ants emerge from overwintering, they’ll begin to spread out and increase activity while the weather is cooler and the soil is more manageable. As summer rolls on, the ants will begin to emerge mostly during the morning and evening, as they prefer mild temperatures. Once things begin to cool again during the fall, they’ll become more active, redoubling their efforts to store up fats and carbohydrates for the coming winter. Fire ants are also seen in larger numbers during the fall as they commonly reproduce during this season, usually after a strong rainstorm.
Are Fire Ants Dangerous?
Fire ants are one of the most aggressive and dangerous types of ants, having obtained their common name from their intensely painful, burning stings. When attacking, these ants bite and latch onto their target, then bring their abdomens down, stinging multiple times. This method of attack makes a single ant a painful nuisance but a swarm a serious threat. Each sting from a fire ant delivers a dose of potent, bioactive piperidine alkaloid venom. Here is a quick breakdown of a fire ant sting:
- The immediate effect of this venom is an intense burning sensation.
- Next, you’ll develop itchy, painful bumps.
- These bumps will usually last for several hours and develop into blisters.
- Over the next several days, the blisters will fill with and become pustules, usually lasting up to 10 days.
- In more extreme cases, such as with allergic reactions, sufferers of fire ant stings may also experience:
- Localized reactions like redness, swelling, and aches.
- Systemic reactions like shortness of breath, wheezing, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, swollen tongue, and chills.
- In extremely rare cases, sufferers can experience anaphylaxis, a severe, life-threatening reaction resulting in dizziness, drops in blood pressure, unconsciousness, and cardiac arrest.
How Do Fire Ants Behave?
While individual fire ants can be a painful encounter, their numbers, speed, and temperament make colonies a serious threat. Fire ants are extremely territorial and aggressive. At the slightest provocation of a nest, fire ants will swarm out in the thousands, latching onto, biting, and stinging their target. Each ant can sting multiple times unless removed, making a swarm very dangerous, even for fully grown adults with healthy immune systems.
Are Fire Ants an Invasive Species?
The red imported fire ant is considered a highly invasive species originating from Brazil. Fire ants are also considered an ecological pest, damaging numerous crops, including corn, soybeans, okra, citrus fruits (lemons, oranges, limes, etc.), potatoes, peanuts, hemp, and much more. These insects pose a risk to very young, old, or otherwise feeble farm animals, as they cannot as easily get away from a swarm.
Can Fire Ants Damage Your Home?
Besides exhibiting a burning sting, fire ants can damage your home. Their mounds and tunnels can weaken the stability of soil, resulting in fallen trees, damaged landscapes, and uneven turf. Furthermore, if the colony nests near a home, they’ve been known to get inside walls, damaging insulation and electrical equipment, leading to electrical fires.
How Do You Manage Fire Ants?
Fire ant control comes down to prevention, identification, and safe removal. You can best prevent these pests by not giving them a reason to come to your property. Start by keeping your lawn free of attractants like trash, tall grass, standing water, lawn clippings, and debris. Next, ensure your home is secure by sealing all cracks, crevices, and holes in the foundation and siding. Finally, keep floors, countertops, and tabletops clean of crumbs and dishes.
If you suspect a fire ant problem and don’t see any visible mound, try identifying individual ants. If you do spot a fire ant mound, be very careful, as the ants will attack at the slightest disturbance.
What Pesticides Work on Fire Ants?
Insecticide sprays will kill individual fire ants on the spot, and bait is the most effective solution for colony removal. When using any insecticide, always read and follow its accompanying directions. We also recommend using a handheld spreader to distribute bait granules. Using a spreader results in a more even coating and avoids skin contact with irritating pesticides. If you have multiple mounds, it can be difficult and dangerous to manage alone. In these cases, we recommend the aid of pest control services.
Are There Any DIY Methods To Get Rid of Fire Ants?
Some DIY methods are proven to kill fire ants, namely baking soda and vinegar. Baking soda dries ants when consumed, resulting in death. To use baking soda this way, mix a combination of half baking soda and confectioners sugar and sprinkle it around the mound. Vinegar will kill ants when it’s used as a spray because it contains acetic acid. But these methods are not typically enough to remove an entire colony, so fire ant bait is still the most effective long-term solution.
Fire ants are invasive pests with painful stings. They’ve run rampant across the U.S. Southern coastline and from Maryland to California. Removing them will be a tough challenge if they infest your yard. We recommend contacting a pest management company for anyone not accustomed to dealing with pest problems, especially those who are allergic to insect stings.