Sunday, June 25, 2017

Floating Fire Ant Balls: Cindy's Lesser-Known Danger

Eric Chaney
Published: June 23,2017

In this 2004 file photo, a swarm of fire ants clings to a chain link fence and floating debris. Fire ants are common throughout the areas hit by Tropical Storm Cindy, and swarms like this could appear as the ants link up to survive the flooding.
(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Flooding remains the primary concern after Tropical Storm Cindy made landfall, but officials in Alabama are warning of another, less obvious danger from the storm – massive balls of floating fire ants.
These biting, stinging insects live in colonies of up to 500,000 ants, and during floods the entire colony can, according to the Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project (IFARMP) at Texas A&M University, “form a loose ball, float, and flow with the water until they reach a dry area or object they can crawl up on.”
Fire ants, which were accidentally imported from South America in the early 1900s, are now native across the Southeast. Tropical Storm Cindy soaked much of their habitat, dumping over a foot of rain in places in Mississippi and 6 to 8 inches in parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.
The heaviest rain and risk of flash flooding will continue in portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama into Saturday, said meteorologist Lind Lam. Drier conditions are expected behind a cold front that will move through the region this weekend.
As long as waters are high the chance of seeing floating rafts of ants continues, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System said in a press release.
“Floodwaters will not kill fire ants. Instead, their colonies will emerge from the soil, form a loose ball, float and flow with the water until reaching a dry area or object,” the release states. “Floating colonies can look like ribbons, streamers or a ball of ants floating on the water.”
Kelly Loftin, an entomologist and professor at the University of Arkansas, told the Washington Post the raft building exercise is a communal one designed to keep the colony’s queen and young safe.
“The queen is kept safe in the middle of that raft,” he added. “The workers are keeping the eggs and the small larvae safe from the water and oftentimes they’re doing that by holding them in their mouth.”
The ants trapped underwater on the bottom side of the raft collect bubbles to raise up the raft so it can float, Loftin said, but the ants constantly switch positions, so that no ant remains submerged in the water for long.
The goal, of course, is to find dry ground, but “ground” can be anything above the water line, which is why Loftin warns people in boats to avoid the colonies as much as possible.
Loftin said that ants can hold their raft-like shape for up to 12 days, but caution is needed even after the water has gone down.
Fire ants can collect under debris deposited by flooding, the Alabama extension office said, and warns to pay special attention to what is on, under, or in it — especially if the debris has been sitting in the area for several days.
If water has entered your home or business, experts urge you to to check and laundry or piled towels carefully as well.
“Laundry piles are convenient places that present lots of tunnels for the ants. They may be attracted to moisture or food residue or oils on soiled clothing. Often, reports of ants in laundry occur following a flood,” IFARMP said.
 Fire ants are aggressive when disturbed and will defensively attack anything that threatens them, often stinging repeatedly, the IFARMP said.
Symptoms of a fire ant sting include burning and itching. The ant injects a venom containing an oily alkaloid called Solenopsin A that is toxic to cells. It causes a white pustule to form in a day or two. Although the stings are not usually life threatening, they are easily infected and may leave permanent scars.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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