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Texas: When it Rains, It’s Fire Ants

For every one mound you treat, they build three more.

*sigh*
September 10, 2018

Could be worse. Could be leaf cutter ants, driver ants, Africanized bees…

Leaf cutter ants wouldn’t chew holes in my walls and swarm all over the inside of my house every time it rains! I got stung on my foot this weekend because these jerks were all over my stairs, and I had to tear up the carpet to seal up the hole. They’re moving up since I finally blocked off all their inlets downstairs. Pretty soon they’ll be swarming all over my bedroom upstairs.

I can’t go in my yard wearing anything less than knee-high boots, and I can’t mow or do any gardening without disturbing at least one nest like this.  The above gif was from when I was weed whacking yesterday and accidentally hit a mound.

Any baby bird that falls out of their nest is almost immediately totally engulfed in a swarm of fire ants like this. If they get bored, they’ll climb the trees and get them while they’re still in the nests.

I mean, give me driver ants. I sometimes get the males, and they definitely have never come into my house and attacked me.

I’ll gladly trade the fire ants for Africanized bees.

September 11, 2018

seriously tho fire ants suck and I would take africanized bees and leaf cutter ants over them. They make ant balls and bridges when it floods and in puddles so its super easy to get swarmed and bit when doing field work or yardwork when it’s super wet. And they bite AND sting. Like yeah stepping in a yellow jacket nest and having them chase me was super sucky and frightening but I was prepared for it because of the amount of fire ant swarming I experienced as a child in florida. Like I was that dumbass who used to freeze after stepping on an fire ant hill and then my feet and legs would get covered with them. Plus fire ants are highly invasive species and are now ubiquitous across the southeast. When I visit my relatives in Wisconsin and now living in Colorado its amazing that I can go bare foot in a yard WITHOUT having to watch out for fire ants. I went black lighting in sandals on my advisor’s several acre property in the dark and DIDN’T STEP IN A SINGLE ANT HILL BC THERE WAS NO FIRE ANTS. I went fossil hunting and pissed of some harvester ants bc I picked some teeth off their mound and they don’t even hold a candle to the fire ants despite my professor being a weenie about getting bit by them. 

Yes yes yes. When Harvey hit last year, and the entirety of Houston (and MANY other cities that were devastated and never got a mention, like La Grange!) flooded, the survivors treading through floodwaters had to deal with rafts of millions of fire ants floating on the water. They are an invasive species from an area prone to regular flooding, so they are especially well adapted for and thrive in very wet and flooded environments. Alex Wild (ant expert extraordinaire) gave a talk at one of my clubs, and said he thinks fire ants are so pervasive because of stupid irrigated lawns providing the perfect environment for them, and a hostile environment for our native ants who are better at dealing with very dry conditions.

Anyway, if you would prefer fire ants to literally anything else (except maybe bedbugs?), then you obviously have never been stung by them. My first Fire Ant Experience: I used to keep my cat food in a closet. I would grab the bag, carry it to the cat food bowls, feed the cats, then put the bag back. The bag was one of those resealable ones. But apparently fire ants are small enough that they can sneak in through the tiniest gap. While I was at work one day, they had chewed a hole in the wall below the baseboard and started going to town on the bag of food. The closet was in the hall, and so it was dark when I grabbed the cat food. I had walked several steps when I felt a strange sensation on my hand. I looked down, and to my absolute horror, my entire hand was covered in hundreds of fire ants. I couldn’t just drop the bag of food and get fire ants all over my living room, in addition to the closet, so I had to keep holding onto the bag long enough to walk back before I could start screaming. Luckily I got away with only a few stings (miraculous), but they were so painful I wanted to cut my hand off. They will bite onto you and sting you repeatedly until you get them off. One of my coworkers was gardening in shorts, and he hit a fire ant mound. Both of his legs were covered in hundreds of stings.

That first instance was over two years ago. My hand still has scars from those stings. Since then, this scenario has been repeated no fewer than 10 times, except now I am totally paranoid at first sight of an ant inside my house. The outside of my house is covered in fire ant mounds, and they will even build tunnels going up into my walls under my siding. There is absolutely nothing I can do about it, besides keeping a tube of caulk ready.

I’m from Seattle. I had never seen an ant mound before moving to Texas. But now if I go anywhere that isn’t Texas and see a mole hill, I’ll have a mini-freakout. I can’t wear sandals anymore unless I know I will 100% be indoors or on pavement. And the idea of wearing sandals at night?????? Or sitting on the grass???? Are you mad??????

Howdy y’all! @anunearthlyfireburningbright: this is not just my house. This is my entire neighborhood. Everybody’s yard is exactly like mine. Our neighborhood is a development on land that was previously farmland (aka, irrigated fields). What exactly would an exterminator do? The fun thing about fire ant nests: they don’t always have mounds. In fact, most of the colony/nest is just underground tunnels, and based on my observations of my yard, I am not exaggerating when I say my entire yard is essentially a fire ant nest. You would have no idea there was a nest under there unless you stuck a shovel in or pulled a weed out. They only make the mounds for special occasions or something. I’ve seen them build mounds over prey so they could consume it easier, and then when they’re done they just leave. Or they build mounds when they have SO MANY PUPAE they can’t fit them all underground. 

I do (sometimes) treat the mounds with orthocene, but I try to only do it when absolutely necessary along the side of my house. The poison kills indiscriminately, and I have a lot of frogs, lizards, and other insects that I don’t hate that will also get exposed and die. Also, you can poison and kill all you want, but the ants will just leave that area until it’s safe to come back. I have no way of knowing if I managed to kill any ants, or if they just relocated to a different part of the yard.

@thatthreeanon Seriously, you’d have to nuke the entirety of Texas. Fire ants are everywhere, there’s nothing you can do about them. There are researchers at UT Austin working on finding a parasitoid that will attack fire ants, but I’m not sure they’re at a wide-scale implementation stage yet. 

Plus side! The fire ants are responsible for essentially eradicating ticks from Austin! So, uh… thanks? I guess?

Went back to the mounds last night cuz I can! I had treated the mounds by my house on Saturday so I could cut the grass on Sunday. The treated mounds are abandoned (only one has dead ants in it). The ants will relocate if their mounds are disturbed, so I’m fairly certain the mound in the above gif was the new settlement of the abandoned treated mound.

The gif is of this mound (boot for scale). I had zoomed in on the darker part. And of COURSE I had to harass them again (have I mentioned I hate fire ants??)

September 12, 2018

@clannfearrunt My experience has been the exact same. Part of it may be that you only need to get seriously stung once before you get more cautious, so when you do get stung you anticipate it and they can’t sting you repeatedly.

I’m at the stage now where I can’t easily distinguish the random sharp pains I get because my body is terrible from a singular fire ant sting. I’ve even managed to get stung and not realize it until later, when I see the “mosquito bite” I got has the tell-tale white center only ant stings give you. I had one in my navel once after mowing the lawn 😂

When I got stung on Saturday, I had been stung several times on my big toe. It wasn’t nearly as bad as when I got stung on my hand (less sensitive skin?), and I put some anti-itch cream with lidocane on it right afterwards and the swelling went down and the bites were gone within the hour. The stings on my hand from two years ago were inflamed, red, swollen, and painful for days—so much so I had trouble putting on nitrile gloves at work.

Any other Southerners want to chime in?

September 12, 2018

So I was born in the suburbs of Jacksonville FL and lived there the first ten years of my life. Can confirm fire ants are awful terrible pests and you do get desensitized to the sting. I was an outdoorsy kid and got stung so much when I was really little that I was practically immune to it by the time I was old enough to have memories of being stung.

That said, my dumb little ass liked to be barefoot and I was stung a LOT. I remember once, my friend and I were playing in the back yard and accidentally planted our feet in a mound/nest of some kind. Mind you, this is a couple of well-sized nine year olds and there was plentiful room for us to both stand wide-legged in this mound. Once we realized we were covered in THOUSANDS of ants, we ran screaming to the water hose and took turns drenching each other.

Then we went back to playing barefoot.

Very interesting/funny/horrifying! Thanks for sharing!

Hello, @bombuslaetus! They typically get in under or through the baseboard. I have a tube of bathroom caulk I was using to plug up all the holes, but recently bought a tube of spackle since that’s actually meant to go on walls. I plugged up the hole in my pantry with it and thought that was that. No. Within 30 min they had chewed through the spackle and were back in my pantry.

The above gif is the next hole they made, disturbingly in an interior wall that doesn’t directly interface with the outside, meaning they are in my walls, not just passing through them. The above gif is in the closet they first appeared in. After I had dealt with that very first hole two years ago, I went around the entire perimeter of the closet, plugging up every hole and gap I could find, meaning the hole in the above gif was not there already. After seeing them chew through the spackle, I’m convinced they are making the holes themselves.

And why are they so pervasive here? They are adapted to thrive in areas that intermittantly flood. Our native ant species in Texas are adapted to thrive in areas that cycle through drought. People have grass lawns which they water regularly to keep green. It intermittantly floods here. We have pushed out our native species and created an artificial environment ideal for the invasive fire ants.

I believe in South America, their habitat is physically bordered by mountainous regions they can’t cross on their own, and the habitat across the mountains isn’t suited for them. I’m not really too familiar with this. I’m mostly parroting what Alex Wild said when somebody asked him about it at our meeting.

September 14, 2018