The Terrifying Way Fire Ants Take Advantage Of Hurricane Floods

2017-08-31T16:12:50+00:00 August 31, 2017|
Fire ants quickly clump together to ride through floodwaters. (Credit: Tim Nowack, Georgia Institute of Technology)

(Click to enlarge) Fire ants quickly clump together to ride through floodwaters. (Credit: Tim Nowack, Georgia Institute of Technology)

The islands of stinging insects are just the beginning. In addition to debris (and alligators), Texans escaping Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters must watch out for floating balls of fire ants. And the problem won’t go away after the waters subside.

(From Popular Science/ by Ellen Airhart) — The red imported fire ant evolved in South American floodplains, but has since taken the southern U.S. by storm—both literally and figuratively. The species adapted to float, and takes advantage of the habitat created by floods. So they often arrive and thrive in the wake of human disasters.

“The waters recede and the fire ants are the first ones there to grab all the resources,” says Alex Wild, an entomologist at the University of Texas.

When rains first submerge the colony, the ants join together using their jaws and sticky pads on their legs, according to a study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. Clumps form in just about a minute and a half.

Each bunch can contain anywhere from thousands to millions of ants. The critters at the bottom regularly switch out with the ones on the top, so (almost) none of the insects stay under long enough to drown. The most valuable members of the group—like the queen and her newest babies—are pushed to the top and center for safe keeping, while a few unlucky individuals get permanently pressed to the edge of the ball by their neighbors. If one part of the newly mobile colony is disturbed, other ants will move to fix the gap. These living rafts can stay together for days, or as long as it takes to reach a tree or dry land.

Normal ants bite and then spray acid on the new wound, but fire ants are much worse. They bite, hold on, and inject a venom containing 46 different proteins, including poisons that sometimes affect the nervous system. They also have a more brutal attack pattern than many social insects. If you knock over a beehive, not all the bees will come after you—most colonies have a few dedicated warriors to protect the clan. When fire ants are disturbed, however, they all attack. About one in every hundred people will have a full-body response to the stings, such as an allergic reaction or even hallucinations.

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