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The Venomous Red Imported Fire Ant

Over 14 million people in the United States endure the sting of the Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) every year.  It’s estimated that over 40 million people live in the vicinity of these pests, so it’s fair to say that – if you live in, say Florida or North Carolina, you could have a 35% chance of experiencing a sting. 

John O. Schmidt describes the sensation of a fire ant bite as “Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming.  Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch” and considers Red Imported Fire Ants to rank as a level one on his famous Schmidt’s Pain Index chart, the lowest possible score.  According to the eminent biologist, fire ant encounters are infinitely more bearable than, say a bullet ant which is a level four and appallingly described as “Pure, intense, brilliant pain.  Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail imbedded in your heel.” 

Of course, Schmidt has had an astonishingly extensive history experiencing the varied sting of the Hymenoptera Order, so he may not be the most relatable person to scale the encounter for the rest of us.  Reactions to RIFA stings certainly vary at the outset, ranging from mild discomfort to an intense, localized burning sensation.  Nearly everyone, at approximately 98% of the population, will develop unsightly, painful pustules that may lead to bacterial infections and scarring.  Unfortunately, the sting may lead in some cases to the Grand Daddy of the systemic response –deadly anaphylactic shock.  All things considered, a fire ant sting is not a pleasant experience and best to be avoided. 

Fire ants sting as both an offensive and defensive biological mechanism, for example stinging to capture prey or to defend their nest.  Regardless of the biological imperative that invokes the response, fire ants are certainly willing and able to deploy their ever-ready stinger extruding from the base of their abdomen.  Their attack first involves their mandibles as they latch onto their hapless victim with a firm bite.  Once attached, they deliver multiple stings, moving around the skin in a circle, releasing their venom.  Suffice it to say, fire ants are ready for a fight.

It is the sting and its venom, not the latching bite, that causes the reaction.  The venom’s watery concoction of insoluble alkaloids and toxic proteins combine to deliver at least four well-known and incredibly potent allergens.  Interestingly, the venom’s potency seems to vary with the seasons, delivering the highest allergic reaction in the summer than the spring, although there are more reported incidents of stings in the spring than the summer.  Florida reportedly has the highest mortality rate associated with these pests, accounting for 22 of the 80 (27.5%) attributable deaths-by-fire-ants in the United States.   

Sting likelihood is variable, with people under the age of 20 being more likely to be victim of these voracious pests.  Experience seems to play a factor as well, with 51% of people who relocated to an infested area report being stung within the first three weeks.  Which suggest that a little education might go a long way in sting prevention. 

The best offense is a good defense – avoid fire ants and their nests.  Fire ants will mass in alarming numbers if their nest is disturbed, unleashing the fury of the entire colony.  To spot a nest, you should look out for large dirt mound nests that, unlike most ant nests, do not have a central opening.  If you see a mound of dirt, avoid it.

In addition to avoiding contact with nests, call Home Paramount for professional pest control services. Because we don’t like fire ants either.