What do Mexico, Australia, the southern United States and basically all other countries close to the equator have in common? Fire ants. Well, probably lots of other things too, but this is a blog about arthropods, so – fire ants.
Being from the southern U.S. myself, fire ants and I know each other quite well: I threw many a pinecone into a fire ant hill in my childhood to watch the little insects pour out like red, angry water. In turn, I’ve been stung plenty of times wading through tall grass, running around at summer camp, and standing outside of a Target at midnight waiting to get inside for some random college event. My uncle once carried me through his garden to protect me from fire ants – which we both happened to stumble across barefoot. He’s a brave man, and apparently has a high pain tolerance.
My first encounter with a “fire” ant was probably the most memorable, even though this particular insect wasn’t a true member of the species. I saw this ant on a playground near my neighborhood when I was in preschool. At the time, ants were one of my favorite things on the planet – I loved to watch them at work or let them crawl on my hands, and I would frequently play with the ants I found in or around my house.
On that fateful morning I was playing alone near the edge of the playground, probably looking for bugs, when I spotted this large, orange ant about the size of the carpenter ants I loved so much. In fact, this was a type of carpenter ant, but I wouldn’t know this until years after the damage had been done. I was fascinated – a colorful ant! I placed my hand in front of it so the ant could crawl on, blissfully unaware of what was about to happen. I began to wonder if there were green ants too, or blue ants, or pink ants, or…
Suddenly, it felt as if my finger had caught fire. Even if this guy wasn’t a true fire ant, he got the job done. The next thing I knew, I was screaming and retreating back to my mom in a full-on toddler sprint. Good times.
Although my initial hatred of fire ants came from a case of mistaken identity, I’ve been stung plenty of times since to secure my distaste for them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s made themselves an enemy of fire ants, either: lots of my fellow North Americans aren’t very fond of the angry insects either, as they’re an invasive species in both the U.S. and Mexico. Their stings are painful and itchy, and hard to avoid if you accidentally blunder into their territory. Or, as an unfortunate classmate of mine once demonstrated on a field trip, if you intentionally kick their mound into the air with your foot and the crumbled kingdom rains down on top of you.
Ah, well. I guess this post should be more informative than “why I hate fire ants,” so here’s some facts for y’all.
You may have noticed that I’ve been saying “sting” rather than “bite.” While fire ants may bite as well as sting, they don’t actually have poison glands in their mandibles – much like bees, they have stingers on the end of their abdomens for injecting toxins into prey and foes, which causes much more pain than a simple bite. Bees and ants are also similar in the ways their colonies operate: there are worker ants and worker bees who fulfill various duties for their colonies, such as tending to the colony’s young and hunting or gathering food. Both colonies are also ruled by a queen bee or queen ant, who lays the colony’s eggs.
While I’m not too fond of their company, I do have to admit that fire ants are pretty smart. For example, they’re great with livestock. Well, not pigs and cows, but the choice livestock of ants – aphids. Aphids secrete honeydew, which ants enjoy drinking just as much as many people enjoy milk. Fire ants will hypnotize “herds” of aphids and lead them to feed on the best quality plants they can find to ensure that the honeydew the little insects produce will be top notch. The ants also protect their herds by fighting off hungry ladybugs, which prey on aphids. These practices are pretty annoying for anyone trying to rid their garden of aphids, as the ants are hardly reducing the pesky crop-eaters’ population numbers, but kinda cool for insect enthusiasts like myself.
Fire ants are also incredible architects. They build massive mounds of intricate tunnel systems that can extend deep into the ground, and appear quite formidable at the grass level as well. But what happens if these dirt-based kingdoms are destroyed, as could often happen in world full of dangers significantly larger than a bunch of little insects? Apparently, however, fire ants are incredibly resilient. For example, if a colony of ants gets swept up in rainstorm and they find themselves caught up in the floodwaters, they will (I promise you I’m not making this up) band together into a RAFT OF FIRE ANTS and float away to safety. They can even float for weeks at a time without drowning.
Seriously. Can you imagine wading through floodwaters and colliding with a pile of fire ants, of all things? People are going to think I’m crazy when I scan the water for fire ants before jumping into the lake this summer.
Entomologists are learning more about fire ants and other ant species every day, from their complex social structures to their individual intelligence. I may not permit fire ants to crawl on my hands anymore, but they’re still fascinating animals to observe from afar – or just close enough to throw pinecones at.
Actually no, don’t throw pinecones at fire ants. That’s not nice. The ArthroBlogger does not condone that kind of behavior, even if fire ants are jerks. Let’s be nice to arthropods – especially when they attack you in angry swarms if you mess with them.