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fire ant

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – An itching, burning, red fire ant sting is enough to agitate any big toe. Now imagine a swarm of fire ants heading your way in the air. Run for the hills.

Unfortunately, according to Alabama Extension Entomologist Xing Ping Hu, this horrific phenomenon is a reality. From spring through late fall, swarms of fire ants take to the skies to mate.

Swarming fire ants are easily differentiated from other ants by their relatively large body. About 1/3 of an inch long, these swarming beasts stand out among the rest.

Why Do Fire Ants Swarm

The dry period after a rain storm will is an ideal time for swarms.

“Swarming, or dispersal flight, is the way fire ant colonies reproduce and expand their range,” Hu said.

The swarming process begins when worker ants create exiting holes on top of the mound for winged, unmated male and female reproductive ants to exit the mound. Once they have exited the mound, the ants take flight and mate in the air. After mating, the males die and the females – the queens – land on the ground.

“Only a small percentage of queens survive after landing,” Hu said. “The females that survive shed their wings and burrow into the soil to form their own nests. They will then lay eggs in the nest to start new colonies.”

Am I Under Attack?

While swarming fire ants can still bite or sting people, they are less likely to than worker fire ants.

“Winged fire ants are less aggressive than workers because their only goal is to mate and reproduce,” Hu said. “They are highly unlikely to bite or sting you while flying or searching for a nesting site.”

Reflective surfaces are alluring to swarming fire ants. Pools, lakes or ponds make great landing places for swarming ants but can cause a major problem. Aside from being annoying in the pool, swarms can cause fish kills in lakes or ponds.

“Reports show that fish have died from fire ant ingestion,” Hu said. “They carry poison sacs in their body that contain a toxin that is reportedly deadly to fish if ingested.”

If swarming fire ants are spotted in the yard, pond or pool, it can serve as an important signal that a new wave of fire ant colonies is coming.

Eradicating the Swarm

Once a swarm is identified, the first step is to start cleaning them up. Vacuums with a hose attachment or handhelds can be a great tool for removal. Once they’ve been vacuumed, immediately remove the vacuum bag and seal it in an air-tight bag.

Spraying pesticides once they are on the ground before they dig into the soil is also an option. To remove them from pools, using floating items like tennis balls is a good option.

“Ants are not good swimmers and will attach themselves to the floating balls,” Hu said. “Once the ants attach themselves to the ball, remove the balls and kill the ants.”

More Information

For more information about fire ants, visit the Alabama Extension website, www.aces.edu.

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