For those new to Texas, you’ve probably recently met the little pest. If you haven’t, well…I want to live where you’re living.
Fire ants, specifically red imported fire ants, are not native to Texas. They showed up in the United States in 1929, when a cargo ship using soil as ballast arrived in Mobile, Ala. from South America. The ants have been traveling west ever since, and hit Texas in the 1950s. They now infest the eastern two-thirds of the state, and some urban areas in western Texas.
Texas is home to a variety of ant species, so it can be hard to tell the difference among them based on physical characteristics. But there is no mistaking the behavior. Kick over an ant pile and the ants, if they are a native species, will scatter and hide. If they’re fire ants, they’ll come right up after you. In fact, you can almost hear fire ants cussing you as they attack.
I’ve read that fire ant mounds get to be about 18 inches in diameter, but I once saw a mound on a farm in Centerville that was at least five feet in diameter and almost three feet high. I assumed it was fire ants; I didn’t stick around to find out.
In Texas, getting stung by fire ants is almost a rite of passage. Mamas will talk about their children’s first, second and sometimes third fire ant encounters. It’s just one of those things to be experienced that is not a question of “if” it happens, but “when” it happens. And it’s not pleasant.
I’ve been lucky; I’ve only been stung a couple of times in my life by one or two ants at a time. My childhood bug misery was mostly thanks to chiggers, not fire ants. Texas children get wise to fire ants pretty quick, so there’s usually not a second round of fire ant hell.
If the eyeball-popping pain of the initial sting doesn’t get your attention, you can tell you’ve been bitten by fire ants by the white pustules on your skin. Word to the wise: don’t break open those pustules. They can get infected, and you really don’t want that. There are different treatments for bites listed on the Internet, but the effectiveness of some remedies is questionable. Ask a medical professional before trying any of them.
All sorts of legends have sprung up around fire ants, mostly to do with killing livestock. And yes, folks, it’s true; calves, kittens, puppies and birds have fallen prey to these nasty ants. People have died, but that’s because of lethal allergic reactions to fire ant stings, and that really doesn’t happen very much.
Mostly, fire ants are just a painful nuisance.
South Americans don't have nearly the problem that the United States does. They only have 20 percent as many fire ants as we do, probably because the natural predators of fire ants, like the Brazilian phorid fly, don’t live in North America.
If there is anything positive to be said about fire ants, it’s this: yards with fire ant mounds do not have ticks. In fact, ol’ Solenopsis invicta supposedly likes to eat fleas, ticks, termites, cockroaches, chinch bugs, mosquito eggs and larva, and scorpions. Most Texas farmers and ranchers have discovered that, while they may have a fire ant problem in their pastures, they don’t usually have a problem with anything else. And fire ants bind us together as a people. They give all good Texans something to complain about.