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Theres nothing like walking through cool grass on a warm summer's day.

But every Southerner knows that a barefoot stroll in the yard comes with risks

"Ow, ow! OW!"

This fire ant mound should be a familiar sight to anybody who lives in the southern U.S.

But you wont see them marching around in little lines on the ground. We're surrounded by an

underground network of foraging tunnels, but this is home base. And the best way to get

to know whats inside is to give it a poke.

A fire ants main senses are touch and smell. The slightest disturbance and workers release

alarm pheromones, a chemical signal that can raise the entire mound to defense within seconds.

Anything sitting still is now a target, so let's get out of here.

A fire ants bite isnt what hurts. Their mouths only serve as anchors so they can curl

around a sharp stinger and inject a dose of venom, a painful reminder theyre in the

same order of insects as bees and wasps: the Hymenoptera.

Insect researcher Justin O. Schmidt developed a pain index for Hymenoptera venom, mostly

by allowing himself to be stung over and over. The tiny sweat bee, for instance, is a 1

a tiny spark singeing a single hair”. The bullet ant scores a 4, the most painful

grade, likefire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”

Fire ants score a mere 1.2 on the Schmidt Pain Index, but they tend to sting multiple

times, like this one did. It's already starting a local immune response around that venom:

it's red, it's itchy, it's burning. It does not feel good. Within a few days the cells

will actually die and leave me with a nice little white bump that I will not be able

to resist popping. The things I do for this show.

These stings have made fire ants a target of pure, unadulterated hate in the southern

U.S., but its important to remember that just like us, these ants are an imported species.

The red imported fire ant, arrived in the U.S. between 1933 and 1942, accidentally scooped

from their home in South America, placed onboard a ship, and dropped in Mobile, Alabama.

They left behind a hard life full of daily ant warfare, but in Alabama they found opportunity,

few enemies, and a boy named Edward Wilson. E.O. Wilson would later become the worlds

leading expert in ant biology, but as a teenage scientist in Mobile, he recorded the first

known sighting of imported fire ants. Over the next two decades, as Wilson and other

scientists watched these ants spread out from Alabama, southern farmers went into full freak



Now, maybe it was because the nation still had war on the mind, or the ants hadred

in their name, but the US stopped at nothing to eradicate them. Retired World War II bombers

took to the air loaded with pesticide, indiscriminately showering the South with millions of tons

of poison.

Wed later learn that the pesticides used were many times more toxic than DDT.

E.O. Wilson called the bombing campaign theVietnam of entomologyand it was one

of the inspirations for Rachel CarsonsSilent Spring.” In the end, aerial pesticides

did do a lot of killing, but instead of fire ants, it was mostly to livestock, birds, fish,

and native ant species.

Nature hates a vacuum. By wiping out the native ants, we made it easier for imported fire

ants to advance. Theyve since spread from Florida to Texason to California, even

to Mexico, China, and Australia. Solenopsis invicta seems perfectly evolved for invasion.

Part of the answer lies in their how they reproduce. Hordes of winged males and future

queens take to the air in massive mating flights. Pregnant queens then air-drop into new open

territory free of competition, break off their wings, and bury themselves to give birth to

new colonies.

In many places, like here Texas, a genetic variation has made some fire ants lose their

territorial nature. Many colonies here are home to many queens, theyre more densely

packed than their territorial relatives, allowing them to spread like a creeping fungus instead

of airborne seeds.

Thanks to their tropical origins, during floods, entire fire ant colonies can clump together

and float until they find a new home. They invade by land, air, and water.

Its no coincidence fire ants and humans are constantly running into each other. Fire

ants crave disturbance, and humans provide that everywhere we go. Think of it this way:

If you clear an area, take away the natural vegetation, the first thing to move back in

are weeds, and so it is with fire ants: Tiny animal weeds.

Like weeds, they're more annoying than dangerous, but imported fire ants cost $6 billion every

year, damaging everything from golf courses to electrical equipment, where they sometimes

nest. Eradication is impossible, but the answer to controlling them might come from their

South American home.

Tiny buzzing insects, barely visible to the naked eye.

Ant-decapitating flies. Phorid flies - thats their technical name

- are one of invictas natural enemies back home.

They hover over unsuspecting workers, zip down, lay an egg inside the ant, and fly away.

That egg hatches, a maggot crawls into the ants head, eats everything inside, and

eventually the ants head falls off. Scientists have imported these flies into

the U.S. so they can be used as a biological control method. One fly can terrorize hundreds

of ants, putting a whole colony on the defensive. These flies are super-specific to the species

they attack, so scientists dont think theyll become a threat to native ants.

But even if phorid fly control works perfectly, imported fire ants will remain permanent residents.

The nameinvictameansunconqueredafter all.

Just like the people who accidentally brought them here, these ants found themselves in

a strange land of opportunity, just trying to make the best of it. The bright side is

that after decades of studying how to killem, the fire ant now rivals the honeybee

as the best understood of all social insects. And for all their stinging, they've taught

us a ton about evolution, social behavior, and of course parasites that make your head

fall off.

Karl von Frisch said something about those honeybees that I think applies equally well

to fire ants: Theyre “…like a magic well, the more

you draw from it, the more there is to draw.”

Who knows, each time we walk barefoot through their little world, maybe theyve just been

begging to be noticed. Stay curious.

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