Fire Ants Are Flourishing — All Thanks to Us

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With an affinity for natural disasters and knack for replacing species that disappear from their natural habitats, fire ants are built for the future. AOKSANG STUDIO/Shutterstock

With so many species on the slippery slope to extinction these day, it's refreshing to see at least one critter thriving.

But wait a minute, that would be the fire ant, so named for its painful bite that attacks living tissue. Not only have humans felt the fire ant's burn, but entire animals — from baby deer to birds to turtles — have been fully devoured by them. (Forget ants in your pants. Imagine the maddening sensation of fire ants in your shell.)

That's not to say the red imported fire ant, aka Solenopsis invicta, isn't a crucial contributor to the vast and varied ecosystems on our planet. It just doesn't belong in our little corner of the world.

In the United States, along with Australia, China and Mexico, red fire ants are classified as an invasive species. Their impact on crops, and by extension, the economies that depend on them, have been nothing short of catastrophic.

But the real kicker? Humans — the same species responsible for decimating populations of both animals and insects — are helping them flourish.

"We've created the perfect environment for them," Benoit Guénard, an ecologist at Hong Kong University, told The Scientist back in 2017.

And, it seems, we're still doing it. Because fire ants happen to be a big fan our of ecology-killing ways:

As writer Ellen Airhart recently noted in Wired:

"They are experts at filling in the ecological gaps where other organisms have disappeared. That can mean colonizing areas where other insects have slowly died away, or blossoming in the aftermath of a big disaster, like a flood, or expanding their turf after a smaller upset, like a lot of typical human landscaping."

So, just as we create gaping holes in the ecosystem by decimating insect and bird species, fire ants swarm into the breach — filling every missing puzzle piece with angry, burning ants.

You would think then that fire ants would be a little kinder towards us.

Instead, some 14 million American are stung by them every year. In Texas, where fire ants gather in ungodly numbers, 79 percent of residents report being stung at least once in a single year.

Yes, they mess with Texas.

Human legs covered in fire ant bites.
The poison in a fire ant's bite destroys living tissue. Arlee.P/Shutterstock

And, unlike so many other species that disappear when the going gets tough, natural disasters are the wind in the fire ant's sails. When Hurricane Florence flooded parts of the Carolinas last summer, for instance, fire ants were seen floating merrily along on rafts built from their own bodies. And woe to anyone who gets in the way of the good ship Fire Ant.

Then there's our obsession with paving our suburban environments with perfectly manicured grass. It might as well be a red carpet for fire ants.

Indeed, all those clever irrigation systems — from sprinklers to underground watering networks — may keep things technicolor green, but fire ants live for that kind of reliable humidity. They mate within 24 hours of a rainfall. Your front lawn, with its constant precipitation, may just be the fire ant honeymoon capital of the world.

"In the South, if you have a lawn, you have created a lovely habitat for fire ants," Walter Tschinkel, a biology professor at Florida State University, told Wired.

So how do we end this toxic relationship? We certainly can't send them back to Central America, where they likely hailed from before catching a lift to America on shipping pallets. You don't just go around sending people parcels full of fire ants.

Natural disasters are going to natural disaster. And it's hardly reasonable to expect America to give up its lawn-loving ways — even if doing so presents a host of other benefits to us all.

Instead, we'll likely keep trying to poison our dubious "friends," regardless of the cost to our planet. But better yet, we might simply take a page from the book of the fence lizard. That wily reptile, according to a recent study, has learned one surefire way to avoid fire ant attacks.

These spiny natives of Georgia and South Carolina — which also happen to be hotbeds for fire ants — have evolved to use a kind of "jolt" reflex in the presence of fire ants.

In other words, they run like there's no tomorrow.