Ants are not often referred to as “medically important insects” or even just as “pests”. We don’t hear much about dangerous ants in the news and for the most part, we view them just as a nuisance. In fact, in many ways, ants are considered to be beneficial for the eco-system as they hunt a lot of other pest insects and contribute to soil fertility.
However, are ants dangerous? Do ants carry disease risks and can we get ant allergy from their bites and stings? The fact of the matter is that while many other insects are significantly more dangerous than them, some ant species can have rather negative effects on our wellbeing. Sometimes to a disastrous degree.
Are ants dangerous to human health?
Most of the 16,000+ species of ants around the world don’t pose much health risks for humans. In fact, more often than not it’s a good idea to tolerate the ants in your garden to a certain extent as they can have quite a few beneficial qualities. Sometimes, however, ants can be an outright health hazard.
As they are neither at the bottom not at the top of most food chains, different ant species have lots of weapons for both attack and self-defense. Almost all ants have powerful mandibles which they use for anything from nibbling on leaves and fungi, through carrying food chunks back to their nests, to crushing their prey and biting things they perceive as potential predators. Most ants’ bites on human skin can feel harmless but some ants have such powerful jaws that they can be quite painful.
In fact, the bites of the red fire ant, in particular, consist of mostly alkaloids and are known to can cause anaphylaxis in a lot of people. Anaphylaxis is an allergic reaction with potentially deadly consequences that it requires emergency injections of epinephrine (adrenaline) if the victim is to be out of danger.
Other ants have wasp-like stings that they can use to inject venom with, while other species don’t even inject the venom but spray it in the air around their victim or predator. Approximately 71% of the 16,000+ species of ants have such stings and venom that consists of primarily formic acid.
Formic acid, especially when injected through a sting, can cause pain, severe allergic reactions, and symptoms such as chest pains, loss of breath, sweating, swelling, outright fever, slurred speech, dizziness, and more.
Are ants dangerous to our property?
The most famous property pests in the ant family are the carpenter ants. They are often confused with termites (who are actually members of the cockroach family) but they actually prey on termites. Unlike them, carpenter ants don’t really consume the wood they dig through and don’t cause as much damage to it. However, they still do dig extensive tunnel systems and nests through wood and can cause quite significant structural damage to any wooden building.
Fortunately, carpenter ant infestations are much easier to spot than termite infestations as they leave small wood dust piles outside of their holes. Nevertheless, if left unchecked for long enough, carpenter ants can quite literally bring a building down. That, in turn, can not only be viewed as property damage but can cause collateral human health damage as well.
Aside from carpenter ants, most other species aren’t as harmful to our property, although a lot of garden ants can be pest insects as much as they can be “beneficial insects”. And while such types of property damage aren’t directly dangerous to our health and well-being, they can still be highly damaging as they can doom entire crops to go to waste.
Do ants harm other animals?
As predatory animals, ants can naturally be quite damaging to other animals. In fact, in many regions, especially in the tropics, ants are near the top of their respective food chains with only certain bird and lizard species preying on them. Ants in such regions are known to hunt and kill other insects, crabs, and other invertebrates, small adolescent mammals and birds, and more.
Of course, the ants that we are likely to meet in rural or city regions are not as dangerous – your garden colony isn’t going to attack your new-born puppies. Nevertheless, just as they can cause humans physical harm through their venomous bites and stings, they can do the same to a farm animal or a pet.
Do ants carry diseases?
If you are looking for an “ant disease” then there is no such thing, however, ants can carry certain harmful diseases. For example, pharaoh ants are famous for spreading organisms such as Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Clostridium, and Streptococcus in medical treatment and food facilities. They are especially dangerous pests in burnt victim treatment units as they are attracted to the fluids from burn wounds.
Many other ant species can spread foodborne disease organisms such as E. coli, Shigella and Salmonella. Such diseases may not be that commonly spread by ants but even simpler things such as food poisonings can be caused by the dirt, excrements, and other mild contaminants that ants often carry with them. Simply put, don’t eat food that’s had ants crawling on it.
Ants are not the most dangerous and harmful insects to human beings out there and they aren’t even always referred to as “pests”. They are almost perfectly designed predators, however, and they have a significant arsenal of defensive and offensive capabilities which they can deploy if they feel threatened. Fire ants are the most notoriously harmful species but carpenter ants can cause structural damage while many other species such as pharaoh ants can spread diseases and cause food contaminations.