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Fire AntsFire ants have been in the United States for over sixty years, and almostevery American that lives in or frequently visits the quarantined states whichthey inhabit has had an unpleasant run in with these troublesome critters.Inhabitants of the Southeast who have ever stood unwittingly atop a fire antmound know that the insects are aptly named. When the ants sting it creates asensation similar to scorching caused by a hot needle touching the skinmomentarily (1. Tschinkel 474). Fire ants are native to South America and wereintroduced to the United States in 1928 through a port in Mobile, Alabama. Theants were stowaways hidden in soil used for ballast and in dunnage dropped offthe ships once they had sailed from South America to the ports of Alabama (2.Lockley 31). The two basic species of fire ants in the United States are theare black and red, they vary in length from one eighth to one quarter inch.Black fire ants arrived first followed shortly by the infamous imported redfire ants. Black ants (Solenopsis Richteri Forel) were the first to arrive andspread slowly but steadily despite government intervention to stop them fromspreading(3.
Lockley 33). These black ants would spread much further then thesecond wave of imported ants recognized as Solenopsis Invicta Buren or redfire ants(4. Lockley 33). This second wave of ants arrived in about 1945 andspread much more rapidly and dominated the previous more passive black ant(5.Lockley 34). Homer Collins, a fire ant expert, stated that 'The new invader,known as the red imported fire ant, proved more adaptive and rapidly displacedthe existing imported black ant.
By 1949, Solenopsis Invicta Buren were thedominant species of imported fire ant. Ants could be found in commercialornamental-plant nurseries in the heart of the Southeast.' Red ants are aparticularly aggressive ant species that, like the killer bees, are rapidlyspreading northward from the Southeastern United States, and have traveled asfar west as Texas and as far north as North Carolina. 'Experts predict that theants may eventually reach as far west as California and as far north asChesapeake Bay.'(7. Tschinkel 474). The spread of fire ants into new areasdepends on many factors: the existing level of fire ant population, climate,competition, and natural predators . In areas where other ant populations arewell established and an abundance of natural enemies exist, colony establishmentis hindered because of the threat to the queen and the competition for resources.Man and his need for cleared land has created open sunny areas free of naturalenemies and fewer competitors and inadvertently aided the spread of the fireants(8. Lockley 35).
Fire ant infestation is a very serious problem in theSouthern United States ranging from Florida, West along the Gulf Coast region,to West Texas. Over 200,000,000 acres of land in the United States and PuertoRico are infested with fire ants. They pose a major economic threat to theagricultural and ranching industries, lawns, gardens and recreational areas, aswell as a threat to animal life and even human life. The total cost ofcontrolling the ants, preventing the damage, and treating the medical problemsin urban and rural areas is estimated to be $2.7 billion per year (9. Lockley36).When native species are defeated by aggressive invaders, the cost ismeasured in lost species and disrupted communities.
The result, predictedecologist Gordon Orians at the 1994 Ecological Society of America Conference,will be the 'Homogocene,' an era in which the world's biota is homogenizedthrough biological invasions(10. Lockley 37). Fire ants use their stingers toimmobilize or kill prey and to defend ant mounds from disturbance by largeranimals such as humans. Any disturbance sends hundreds of workers out to attackthe potential nourishment or predator. The ant grabs its victim with itsmandibles (mouth parts) and then inserts its stinger.
The process of stingingreleases a chemical which alerts other ants, inducing them to stingsimultaneously. In addition, one ant can sting several times, even after its'venom sack has been emptied, without letting go with its mandibles(11. Lockley37). Once stung, human beings experience a sharp pain which lasts a couple ofminutes. These ants are notorious for their painful, burning sting that resultsin a pustule and intense itching, which may persist for ten days.
Initially thesting results in a localized intense burning sensation (hence the name 'fire'ant). This is followed within 14-18 hours by the formation of a white pustule atthe sting site. These pustules can become sites of seconda ry infection if thepustules are broken or are not kept clean, in some cases they can leavepermanent scarring(12 Lockley 38). Some people have allergic reactions to fireant stings that range from rashes and swelling to paralysis, or anaphylacticshock. In rare instances, severe allergic reactions can cause death(14. Lockley35). Then the sting starts itching and a welt appears.
Fire ant venom containsalkaloids and a relatively small amount of protein compared to other stinginginsects. The alkaloids in the venom kill skin cells; this attracts white bloodcells, which form a pustule within a few hours of being stung. The fluid inthe pustule is sterile, but if the pustule is broken the wound may becomeinfected. The protein in the venom can cause allergic reactions includingnausea, vomiting, dizziness, perspiration, cyanosis, and asthma which mayrequire medical attention. Death has been known to result when toddlers fall onfire ant mounds and when adults have extreme allergic reactions. Although fireant stings are not as painful as those of harvester ants or as dangerous asthose of bees and wasps, their greater numbers raise them to the status of pest.Although less than one percent of the population requires medical attentionafter a sting, so many people live in areas infested with fire ants and fireants are so dense in these areas that this translates to tens of thousands ofpeople requiring medical attention for fire ant bites each year.
Fire Antsconstruct nests which are often in the form of dome-shaped mounds of soil,sometimes as large as three feet across and one and one half feet in height. Insandy soils, mounds are flatter and less visible(15. Lockley 38). Fire antsusually build mounds in sunny, open areas such as lawns, pastures, cultivatedfields, and meadows, but they are not restricted to these areas. Mounds ornests may be located in rotting logs, dried cow manure, around trees and stumps,under pavement and buildings, and occasionally indoor. When the nest isdisturbed, numerous fire ants will quickly disperse out of the mound and attackany intruder. The mound serves three primary purposes: it is a platform fornuptial flights, a place to raise the colony above the water table in soakedsoil, and it collects the suns warmth during the cold months of winter(16.Melnick 14).
Fire Ant colonies consist of eggs, brood, minim and major workers, andone or more reproductive queens. A colony is usually started by a single queen,however some beginning colonies can have up to five queens(17. Lockley 39).Mature colonies often posses more than one queen. During the spring and summer,winged males and females leave the mound and mate in the air. After matingfemales become queens and may fly up to ten miles from the parent colony.However, most queens descend to the ground within much shorter distances. Onlya small percentage of queens survive after landing.
Most queens are killed byforaging ants, especially other fire ants. If a queen survives she sheds herwings, burrows into the ground, and lays eggs to begin a new colony. A queenant lays her eggs in a brood chamber twenty five to fifty millimeters deep inthe mound. After twenty to thirty days the first workers appear(18. Melnick14). These workers, called minims, are very small due to the limited amount ofenergy and resources the queen can devote to them.
The minims explore theoutside world and forage for food to feed the queen and the developing colony.Within thirty days the next wave of workers emerge and are up to ten timeslarger than the minims(19. Lockley 39). These workers are called majors andperform the tasks of expanding the mound and foraging for nourishment. Thelabor is divided by age, and to a lesser degree by size. Youngest and smallestworkers are given the job of caring for the developing eggs and brood. Middle-aged workers are tasked with colony maintenance while the eldest and largestworkers forage for food and defend the mound.
A colony may contain as many as240,000 workers after three years(20. Lockley 39). Fire ants are omnivorous,feeding on almost any plant or animal material; although insects seem to betheir preferred food. The arrival of imported fire ants into an ecosystem canwreak havoc on the local ecological community. Studies have shown that aminimum two-fold reduction occurs among populations of field mice, snakes,turtles and other vertebrates when fire ants are allowed to establish colonieswithin a given area.
In some instances, the depredation by fire ants hascompletely eliminated spiders, scorpions, mites, centipedes, ground nestingmammals and birds from an ecosystem(21. Lockley 41). Fire ants are not only a threat to other insects and small mammals, theyalso cause billions dollars worth of damage per year. In Urban areas ants areattracted to electrical currents and cause considerable damage to heat pumps,air conditioners, telephone junction boxes, transformers, traffic lights,gasoline pumps, et cetra (22. Lockley 41). In agriculture, fire ants have beenidentified as damaging corn, soybeans, citrus trees, okra, and up to fifty-fourother different species of cultivated plants.
Ants are also known for feedingupon arthropod predators and other beneficial insects, eating upon groundnesting vertebrates and other wildlife, damage to asphalt roads, damage of farmequipment and machinery(23. Lockley 41). It is very difficult to find an effective method to exterminate fire antcolonies. Four basic methods used to aid in the extermination of fire ants are:individual mound treatment, broadcast treatments, biological control, and theeffects of natural enemies. Individual mound treatments are simply applying ainsecticide directly on the mound and allowing the worker ants to carry thepoison into the colony and feed it to the brood and queen. Broadcast treatmentdo not require the locating of each mound but still rely on the worker ants tobring the insecticide back to the mound to kill the queen and young. Biologicaland natural enemies feed upon the ants themselves, like parasites, to terminatethe colony. Prevention is the key to reducing the threat of fire antinfestations indoors, which means removing exposed food sources that may attractthese insects.
If fire ants enter a building, the treatment objective must beto reduce the potential for accidental stings as quickly as possible.Insecticides labeled for indoor use particularly pyrethroids, can be used inhomes and public buildings to drive foraging ants outside or away from criticalareas, such as kitchens, recreation rooms, patient rooms, operating rooms, orintensive care units. Baits work well for many ants that invade buildings.However the baits should be used in moderation to control fire ants indoorsbecause they are likely to attract additional foraging ants, increasing thechance that an occupant will be stung. Ultimately, long-term control of fireants indoors can be achieved only by locating and treating their mound or mounds,probably with an insecticide drench(24. Lockley 42) Fire ants both black and red have caused billions dollars in damagesince their introduction to the United States over sixty years ago. Even in1997 society has not found an effective way to exterminate or control the spreadof these troublesome insects.
As mankind chooses to genetically experiment withspecies and continues to connect the remote areas of the world with faster andmore efficient means of moving food and goods. Occurrences of accidentaltransportation of troublesome pests, bacteria, and viruses will also increase.The fire ant while costly and annoying won't cause the absolute destruction oflife as we know it. Fire ants are however a reminder that ecosystems are adelicately balanced environments with forces that keep the food chainfunctioning. The fire ant and the African killer bee do not have naturalenemies in the Southern United States that reside in South Africa. As mankinddestroys the rain forests of South America for cattle grazing, he has releasedthings like the Hunta virus, and the Ebola virus in Africa.
Both of theseviruses could rapidly destroy populations. Mankind has made tremendous leaps inknowledge and technology during this century. If this use of that technologyis not metered and controlled intelligently it may be the downfall of themankind.
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