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Earth Day: Getting to Know Fire Ants

Sometime between 1933 and 1945, the United States was invaded by a small, reddish brown Brazilian insect – the Red Imported Fire Ant or Solenopsis invicta Buren to be precise. No one is entirely sure of its port of entry, but speculation often points to Mobile, Alabama or Pensacola, Florida. As of today, the Red Imported Fire Ant has spread to most of the states in Home Paramount’s service area including Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.  

The Red Imported Fire Ant by is similar to other ants, but also readily identifiable. Red Imported Fire Ants are, as helpfully described in its name, reddish-brown in color with a two-segmented petiole (waist) with two nodes. The Red Imported Fire Ant has antennae, which are 10-segmented and end in a two-segment club. Workers are polymorphic, meaning they can range in size from 1/8 to ¼ of an inch within a given colony. A combative pest, Red Imported Fire Ants have an arsenal of four distinct teeth and a stinger that is perpetually extended at the tip of the gaster. 
RIFA’s lifespan increases with their size. Minor workers live for a month or two, media workers for up to three months and major workers for as many as six months. Queens may live for as little as two years or for as long as six years, a much longer life span than the workers and understandable given the intense care provided to her.

Red Imported Fire Ants reproduce through a swarming process. When the colony is about a year old, it produces reproductive alates.  Alates are winged reproductive ants that leave the nest to establish a new colony of their own. A mature colony will typically produce between six to eight mating flights from spring to fall, usually on a warm, sunny day preceded by rain. After the mating flight, the males die, while the females snap off their wings and get to work. She will find a cozy spot to start a new colony, such as the edge of pavement or under the shelter of rocks or leaves.  The determined queen burrows into the soil, excavates a small chamber and promptly seals herself inside to begin her reproductive mission.  Within a day, the queen will have produced 10 to 15 eggs, which will take about 10 days to hatch. In that time, the queen will lay about a 100 more eggs and then stop until the first round of workers matures, progressing through the 6-12 day larval stage and the 9-16 day pupal stage. The queen feeds the larvae with oils, trophic eggs and salivary secretions, breaking down her now-unnecessary wing muscles as a nutrient source.  This meagre food supply makes the first group of workers a small bunch, appropriately termed “minims” for their diminutive size.

Small but mighty, the helpful minim crew burrows out of the chamber for food, returning the queen’s early favor by providing her sustenance.  Foraging workers gather dead animals, honeydew, sweet, proteins and fat and larvae subsist on a liquid diet until the third instar. The minims will also start work on mounding a dirt nest with subterranean entrances and exits. Within six months, you will be able to see the mound in your lawn and it will contain several thousand workers – all sterile females who service the queen and the colony. Once established, the queen can produce as many as 1,500 eggs a day, and a mature colony will contain an average size of over 80,000 workers.  

Fire ants often invade athletic fields, commercial landscapes, golf courses, residential lawns, school yards and other outdoor areas meant to be shared with humans. In situations of heavy, saturating rain, Red Imported Fire Ants will even move inside structures, such as your home, to escape the flooded soil. They have been known to nest under patios and sidewalks, creating a cavity that causes the slab to sink. RIFA have also been observed floating as a colony in floods, forming a buoyant ball to survive the deluge. Beware a RIFA fireball – these flood weary ants are hungrier than normal and highly aggressive.

There are several approaches to Red Imported Fire Ant control, including baiting the mound with products designed specifically for Red Imported Fire Ants. Home remedies may be dangerous to humans and the environment, so please call a professional. Home Paramount’s convenient service can handle this problem for you and save you from the unpleasant encounter with these notorious menaces. Call us today for a free inspection or advice on how to manage your Red Imported Fire Ant infestation.