The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Fire Ants Are Everywhere after the Rains
by Ro Wauer

The recent rains seemingly have increased the fire ants in my yard. I realize that their total numbers may not have increased, only the evidence of their presence. The above ground fire ant mounds have gone from a few to dozens. And according to Beck and Garrett's "Texas Bug Book," each mound can contain 80,000 to 240,000 workers, and also as many as 3,000 queens. These are the nonnative Brazilian red fire ants, not one of the three native species. But whatever they are, that is one heck of a lot of fire ants! The Brazilian fire ants first appeared in Alabama around 1940, and have since invaded the entire South.

I scratched open a couple of the mounds in my yard, with a rake of course so that those little hateful creatures could not get to me, and found literally thousands of ants and hundreds of eggs. The ants swarmed about trying to attack whatever was causing the disturbance. I hope they broke their jaws on the metal rake tongs. And when I returned to that same disturbed mounds a couple hours later, they already had repaired much of the mounds, and none of the eggs were evident. I suspect the queen had already produced plenty of replacements. In fact, some biologists claim that disturbing the mounds only lead to increased ant numbers.

The fire ants amazing survival ability is its use of multiqueen colonies. Not only can they rebound faster, but also their densities, like those in my yard, help them fight off other ant species competing for food. The imported nonnatives may possess ten times more colonies in an area than any native ant.

The significant increase in Brazilian fire ants during the last half-century have had serious effects on many of our native wildlife species. Thirty years ago, anyone turning over a rock in a South Texas pasture could find spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and a number of other native invertebrates; now there often is little more than Brazilian fire ants. Researchers tell us that in some areas up to 90 percent of all native ant populations and 40 percent of all other native insect species have been killed off by these nonnative fire ants. And the decline of some of our grassland birds, such as various sparrows, meadowlarks, bobwhite, and our wintering loggerhead shrike, has been linked to the spread of fire ant colonies. Also, many biologists blame fire ants, along with habitat destruction, for the loss of our prairie-chickens. Even white-tailed deer fawns have been killed by Brazilian fire ants. A fire ant grabs onto its prey with its mouth and attacks the victims with a stinger on its abdomen.

Not long ago, after a heavy wind, while picking up loose branches, my arms were suddenly covered with fire ants; I had unknowingly disturbed a mound under the branches. Although I managed to immediately rub them all off to avoid them from crawling onto my upper arms, a dozen or so managed to sting me. The bites burned at first and itched for a couple days afterwards. Tiny red welts appeared by the next morning. But many people are far more allergic than I am, and a similar experience can have far more serious results.

Brazilian fire ants are mostly a curse, as they create trouble for humans and wildlife alike, including fouling up electrical devices. One the other hand they are said to have helped reduce fleas, ticks, termites, chiggers, and a few other troublesome pests. I have yet to be convinced that the chigger populations have declined. It seems to me that there is now the great double-curse of living in South Texas: chiggers and Brazilian fire ants.

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