You stop walking just long enough to wave a friendly greeting to the new guy next door as he pulls out of his driveway in that sleek red Porsche convertible. You linger, savoring the moment as he drives past.
Horrified, you see your reflection in his mirrored Ray Ban’s as you involuntarily begin the “fire ant dance.” In the 10 seconds it took you to take in the view, what seems to be around 5,000 fire ants scurried up both legs, and they all let you have it at one time.
Though it seemed like this vicious attack on your gams was helter skelter, there was definitely a method to the madness. The first ant that made the journey up over your Birkenstock and onto your foot, traveled approximately 10 inches up your calf to just below your knee. She then latched onto your skin with her mandibles, curled up her abdomen, sunk a sharp stinger into your skin, injected venom (the “fire” in fire ant) and instantly released an alarm pheromone that signaled her sisters to attack.
Ants, Ants Everywhere
Although fire ants may be the best known ants in Florida, anyone who has lived here more than 24 hours knows they definitely aren’t the only brand of ant in the state. In fact, Florida could very easily be nicknamed “The Ant State,” and we could all be slathering on APF 30 Formicidae-screen every time we venture outside.
“There are a huge number of ant species in Central Florida,” says Roberto Pereira, research scientist in the Entomology and Nematology Department at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “The most important thing to remember is that 99 percent of them will never cause us any problems as long as we don’t disturb or threaten them. In fact, ants are beneficial to us in many ways.”
Pereira notes that ants pollinate plants, fertilize the soil, get rid of decomposing waste and organic material, help loosen and aerate the soil, rid our yards of unwanted insects, move seeds (thereby promoting new plant growth) and the list goes on and on.
The thing is, according to Pereira, ants get a lot of bad press—and that is usually due to the one percenters—those pesky little guys who invade your yard, pantry, garage, bathroom, attic and just about any place you can squeeze an ant into (which literally means anywhere).
And at the top of the list is the dreaded fire ant. Most of the ones we encounter in Marion County are red imported fire ants (RIFA). This species was imported to the United States into Florida from Brazil sometime in the late 1930s and is now found as far west as California and as far north as Maryland.
“Fire ants don’t normally come into your home unless there is a good food source available and an easy way in,” says Pereira. “They usually form mounds or hills outside in your yard, and the only time you will encounter them is if you disturb their nest. They, like all ants, are very social creatures. They have one queen whose job is to lay eggs; they have female workers whose job is to take care of the queen, the brood and the nest; and they have males whose only job is to mate with the queen and then die.”
RIFA workers live anywhere from 30 to 180 days, and a queen may live from two to six years. She lays approximately 1,500 eggs per day, and a year-old mature colony consists of between 80,000 and 240,000 ants. A mature colony will have as many as six to eight “mating flights” each year in which new queens and winged males leave the nest and mate, spreading the original colony far and wide.
Along with fire ants, most Floridians are quite familiar with the pharaoh ant. Most locals call them “sugar ants,” and anyone who has had an infestation knows how hard these guys are to eradicate. Pharaoh ants live primarily indoors and can have many queens in one nest. As the nest grows to several thousand ants, queens and males break off or “bud” and create new nests nearby.
Pharaoh ants exist everywhere on Earth (except Antarctica) and can wreak havoc in businesses such as food production plants or hospitals. In hospitals, pharaoh ants can even become a health concern, because they have the ability to spread salmonella, staph and strep germs wherever they travel. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year in an attempt to control the spread of pharaoh ants.
According to Pereira, some ants that we think are pests could actually be helping us.
“Carpenter ants are the ones we find living in rotted wood,” he says. “Many people think that the ants have destroyed the wood by building their home there, but actually, they took up residence in the wood after it was wet and had begun to rot. So, if you see carpenter ants trailing in and out of your attic, it could very well be a sign of a leak in your roof or even your plumbing.”
In other words, if you see carpenter ants, before you call the exterminator, you might want to call a real carpenter or a plumber. Once the leak is fixed, your friendly carpenter ants will move on, looking for some new rotted wood in your neighbor’s house.
Insanity In An Exoskeleton
One little pest that can never be mistaken for a good guy is the tawny or Rasberry crazy ant. This teeny little guy just moved here from Texas and, if some entomologists are right, could end up being the most costly ant in history.
Tawny crazy ants were first reported by an exterminator named Tom Rasberry in 2002 in Pearland, Texas. Since their “discovery,” they have spread along the Gulf Coast and are presently widespread throughout Central Florida. The species, which is also native to South America, is very hard to identify and many feel this has led to an underreporting of the ant’s presence in the Southeast.
“They are called crazy ants because of their erratic behavior,” says Pereira. “They run around very quickly, and there doesn’t seem to be any reasoning behind the path they follow. They live primarily outdoors but can also be found inside.”
What will eventually make this such a costly pest is the prodigious rate with which the ant multiplies—and where it prefers to live. A colony that begins with one queen can spread very quickly with more than one billion ants inhabiting an acre. Once a colony is mature, it can possibly invade your home where the ants seem to have an affinity for anything electric, whether it be electrical boxes and wiring or the circuits in appliances, televisions and computers.
If these ants beat a crazy path into your Mac, iPad or smartphone, thousands of them quickly fill it, shorting out the electric circuits and deep frying your ability to Facebook or Tweet. Can life get any worse?
Well, yes. Just ask the folks back in Pearland who try to sit out on their porches and enjoy a nice quiet Texas sunset. It seems these ants love to travel the human body. Luckily they don’t bite or sting, but, according to Texans, they will drive you crazy when there are thousands crawling all over you. (Maybe that’s the “crazy” in crazy ant.)
If this ant has any good thing going for it, it is the ability to destroy fire ant colonies. The tawny crazy ant has evolved the amazing ability to secrete and cover itself with formic acid as an antidote to fire ant venom. This allows the crazy ant to destroy and displace entire mounds of fire ants. It seems the crazy ants even go so far as to live in the vacated fire ant mounds, simply replacing their vanquished foes. For us, it simply becomes a matter of the lesser of two evils—which do we prefer: the fire in fire ant or the crazy in crazy ant?
Honey, Where’s The Ant Spray? Not!
So, there you have it. The good, the bad and the ugly on ants in Florida—all one quadrillion of them. The next time you are attempting to dig a fire ant out from that place between your toes that is impossible to reach, just remember the words of Pereira, ever the entomological optimist: “Ants are a vital part of the world’s ecosystem and will be here long after we are gone… and we should always remember that they are not our enemies… they are our friends.”
All About Ants
- It is estimated that there are 10 quadrillion ants on the planet.
- The velvet ant, also known as the cowkiller or devil ant, isn’t really an ant at all, it is a wingless wasp.
- There are 1 million ants for every one person.
- Some ant nests are more than 20 feet deep.
- An ant colony in Japan has more than 306 million workers and more than one million queens over 1.6 miles. In the United States, a super-colony has been discovered that covers an area over 550 miles long.
- A queen carpenter ant can live more than 20 years.
- If a 200-pound man were as strong as an ant he could lift two tons.