Despite its tiny size, the ant is a mighty foe. Most are equipped with pincer-like jaws that can latch onto and bite anyone or anything that threatens it. There are several types of venomous ants that can inflict painful wounds including harvester ants, army ants, and several exotic species only found in the wild.
Fire ants cause more grief than any venomous ants. They are so-named because their bites can feel like fire. These aggressive, angry ants are famous for their strong, painful, and obstinately irritating stings which result in itching, burning, swollen pustules on the skin. The baleful ant bites can be traced to the alkaloid chemical piperidine. This substance gives black pepper its spiciness. Piperidine is also found in poison hemlock, the toxin used to kill the Greek philosopher Socrates.
There are 300 species of fire ants in the world and most of them are harmless. The fire ants most people are familiar with are technically known as red imported fire ants (RIFAs). They are native to South America but stowed away to Mobile, Alabama in ship ballast the 1930s. Since that time, RIFAs have become one of the top ten invasive species the world. The stinging buggers can also be found in Australia, the Philippines, and China.
In the United States, over 40 million people live in RIFA territory which extends coast-to-coast from Florida to California through the southern states and the Southwest. An astounding 30 to 60 percent of the folks who live in RIFA states are stung at least once a year. Most stinging episodes are caused by stepping on or otherwise disturbing a fire ant mound. When this happens, hundreds or thousands of fire ants swarm forth and bite the victim. Unlike bee stings, fire ants can bite you repeatedly, each one creating a circular pattern of pain. In such cases, the ants are holding on with their powerful jaws and need to be yanked off the skin individually.
Most fire ant bites can be treated at home. The area should be thoroughly washed as quickly as possible. This removes excess venom that can cause problems later on. If possible, reduce swelling by applying ice to the bite for 30 to 60 minutes. And, as hard as it may be, don’t scratch the bite. This can cause a bacterial infection worse than the bite itself. Those who are allergic to fire ant bites experience severe symptoms including abdominal cramping, difficulty breathing, and vomiting. In such cases, the victim should be rushed to the nearest emergency room.
In general, RIFAs and other biting ants only attack when their nests are disturbed. So watch where you’re walking and save yourself the grief of multiple ant bites.