If you come across a colony of big red ants in the yard or near your home, your first instinct may be to sound the fire ant alarm. However, not only are fire ants actually pretty tiny, but there are more than 700 species of ants in the United States, and spotting the differences between the various types of red ants can be tricky.
Learning more about the different species of big red ants common to your area can make it easier to identify the ones you are seeing. Here are a few basic facts about fire ants, as well as some big red ants you may encounter.
Are red ants and fire ants the same?
Not all red ant species are fire ants, and not all fire ants are red in color. In fact, most ants are not actually red. They are various shades of brown. True fire ants sport a red or reddish-brown appearance and belong to the genus Solenopsis.
- Red Imported Fire Ants (RIFA) are the most common red ants in the United States. They are believed to have entered the country from South America via the port of Mobile, Alabama, in the 1930s. Legend has it, they traveled here in the ships' ballast tanks where soil was used for stabilization. Since their introduction this invasive species has infested land in 15 southeastern states.
- Tropical fire ants also invaded new territories via shipping routes and are almost identical to the RIFA variety. The heads of tropical fire ants are larger and more square-shaped, however. Unlike many ant species, tropical fire ants live in the soil and are most commonly found in dry, coastal areas of Hawaii and the southern United States.
- Southern fire ants — also known as desert or California fire ants — are found across the American South, as well. The red version prefers a desert-like climate, and its mounds are smaller and looser in form than other varieties. The Southern red fire ant is most commonly encountered in arid regions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Other species of red ants can be mistaken for fire ants due to their reddish-brown appearance and a few similar characteristics.
- Carpenter ants can grow to five-eighths of an inch in size. Most fire ants only grow to be as large as a quarter of an inch. They are often found on trees and plants or near easy food sources indoors, such as pet bowls or sugary spills. Along with other ant species, carpenter ant swarmers are also sometimes mistaken for termites, due to their appearance and the fact they do build colonies in wooden structures and trees.
- Tawny crazy ants are a relatively new species in North America, but they are fast gaining dominance in the areas where they are currently found. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin discovered that tawny crazy ants have begun wiping out RIFA colonies and taking over their territory.
- Velvet ants are actually members of the wasp family. Some species have red bands, and the female velvet ant lacks wings, so their appearance can be similar to red ants. Though the sting of a velvet ant can be painful, these “ants” are not known to be aggressive.
Which red ants are dangerous?
Unless they are the fire ants mentioned above, red ants are generally more annoying or destructive than they are dangerous. For example, carpenter ants are probably more interested in the food you have spilled or left behind.
While carpenter ants don’t eat wood, they nest in it. They can cause damage to wood structures in the process of creating galleries they use for nesting.
Tawny crazy ants do not have stingers, but they can bite. Although their bite is mild, an encounter can be unnerving because they tend to swarm in chaotic fashion.
They are more likely to alarm you by invading places you don’t normally expect to find ants. Tawny crazy ants are known for building colonies in odd places like pipes, car engines and computers, and for sometimes short-circuiting electronics. Once they move in, they can be very difficult to get rid of.
Fire ants, especially RIFA, will defend themselves by biting and stinging if they feel threatened, and their stings can be both painful and dangerous. When these big red ants sense a threat, they may respond by crawling up the victim to investigate the disturbance. Once the person realizes ants are crawling on him or her and reacts by brushing them off or something similar, the ants will likely perceive that as a threat and begin to bite and sting the victim. Each fire ant is also capable of stinging multiple times.
Approximately 1 percent of the population is hypersensitive to ant venom, and for some of those individuals, fire ant stings can cause lethal allergic reactions. Victims who are young, elderly or have suppressed immune systems are most likely to experience a severe reaction. Even healthy individuals risk experiencing anaphylactic shock if stung multiple times.
What are the signs that a fire ant bite is serious?
According to the Mayo Clinic, if you experience the following symptoms after a fire ant bite, seek immediate treatment.
- Skin reaction, including hives and itching and flushed or pale skin
- Low blood pressure
- Constriction of your airways and a swollen tongue or throat, which can cause wheezing and trouble breathing
- A week and rapid pulse
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
- Dizziness or fainting
Avoid coming in contact with fire ants whenever possible. Fire ant mounds can be as large as 2 feet high and are often found in sunny areas of lawns, pastures, parks and fields. Mounds may also be present in rotting logs, around stumps and trees and sometimes under houses and other buildings.
Regardless of the species, red ant colonies can quickly get out of control in the house or the area around it. Terminix® offers professional services and lasting solutions tailored to your pest control situation. Contact Terminix today to learn more.