AUG 29, 2017 07:30 AM PDT

Texans Should Be Careful of Floating Fire Ant Colonies Amid Flooding

Whenever horrendous flooding sweeps through an area, locals often spot massive brown blobs floating atop the flood and following the water’s current. But avoid them; they’re probably not blobs of mud – they’re blobs of fire ants.

Fire ants band together to survive a flood in South Carolina in 2015.

Image Credit: FOX Carolina/Adrian Acosta

Fire ants are naturally underground dwellers, so they’re extremely vulnerable to flooding. They’re forced to evacuate their underground headquarters and get above the flood to survive.

Native to flood-prone regions of South America, fire ants developed a defense mechanism to combat flooding. Worker ants band together to form a raft out of their wax-coated bodies, which help them stick together.

The rest of the colony then climbs on top of the floating arc, staying above the water until the floods recede (or sometimes longer). The queen and the colony’s larvae remain in the center where they stay out of harm's way. Just one raft can hold thousands, or perhaps millions of ants.

While it sounds like a great survival technique that highlights the fire ants’ resilience, it also brings a couple of other scary ideas to our attention: their invasiveness and problematic sting.

Related: Here's why it's so hard to drown a colony of fire ants

Indeed, fire ants are an invasive species known to impact the ecosystems they move to negatively by hogging resources. Fortunately, they have tiny legs and rarely stray far from home in their underground dwellings as a result.

Massive floods change that; the floating rafts of fire ants travel more quickly than by foot, enabling the insects to spread to new locations and wreak havoc on new ecosystems.

With hurricane Harvey ripping through Texas and causing vast flooding as of late, the state is seeing a lot of these floating fire ant rafts. For some, it’s a photo opportunity, but for others, it’s a red flag for safety.

The fire ants remain in raft-like formation until eventually bumping into something both dry and stable. Whether it’s higher ground, floating debris, or someone’s home, they’ll begin climbing on whatever they find to get out of the water.

If that object happens to be someone's home, then the ants become a safety hazard instead of an environmental threat. Anyone living in the now-invaded home or that might be using the house as a flood shelter becomes stranded with an army of menacing fire ants.

The fire ants are frightened because their home is gone and they sense danger, making them hypersensitive to human presence. Most insects with biting or stinging capabilities send just a few reinforcements to neutralize a threat, but fire ants send in the whole squad.

Related: Here's how ants communicate with one another

When a person gets attacked by hundreds, thousands, or millions of fire ants all at once, it never ends well. The stings are more painful than most ants because of how the insects cling on during a bite and inject a nasty venom into the victim’s wound.

The high potency of the venom from such a large number of fire ants stinging the victim at once can cause a plethora of hallucinogenic side effects, or worse, death in the case of an allergic reaction.

There is one way to defend yourself, however. Soapy water can disrupt the waxy coatings on fire ants’ bodies, which breaks apart the floating rafts. Squirting a stream of dish soap at floating fire ant colonies will help disband the raft, eventually drowning most of the ants.

Although the fire ants probably won’t survive once you break up their floating raft, you’ll protect yourself from a dreadful day, and you might even protect the ecosystem that they’ll inevitably invade once the waters recede.

With that in mind, those fighting the floods in Texas right are recommended to keep a bottle of dish soap handy, just in case the need to use it comes along.

Source: Popular Science

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
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