Fire ants are red, stinging ants of the genus Solenopsis. There are several species of fire ants, all of which are known for their painful stings. But what are the different types of fire ants, and how can you tell them apart from other ant species?
What are fire ants?
The name ‘fire ant’ refers to several species of ants in the genus Solenopsis. Fire ants get their name partly from their red coloring, but are better known for their painful sting. These insects are highly aggressive when defending their mounds, and will attack and bite a perceived threat in large groups. Each worker ant can sting multiple times, leaving their victims covered in pimple-like wounds.
For most people, fire ant stings are nothing more than a painful nuisance. Stings usually result in an immediate and intense burning pain, which quickly subsides to an itching or milder burning sensation.
However, for people who are allergic or sensitive to fire ant stings, an attack can be far more serious and may cause severe reactions and even death. Fire ants are also known to attack pets, livestock, wildlife, and native bugs. They may also damage structures, electrical devices, and agricultural crops, making them a major pest in some southern parts of the United States.
Life cycle of fire ants
Fire ants of the same colony come in a variety of sizes, and their lifespan depends on their size. Worker ants may live between 30 and 180 days, while the queens may live for 2 to 6 years.
The queen fire ant lays eggs in batches, which hatch into larval after 8 – 10 days. The larval stage lasts between 6-12 days, after which they enter the pupal stage of their life cycle. After a further 16 days, the worker fire ants emerge from their pupae. All of the worker fire ants are sterile females, and only the queen lays eggs. She may produce up to 1,500 eggs in a single day, producing colonies containing up to 240,000 worker ants.
What do fire ants look like?
Fire ants are red, but so are several other ant species. Not all red ants are stinging fire ants, and not all fire ants are red – so how can you tell them apart from other ant species?
Fire ants are quite small, measuring 2 – 6 mm in length, though a single colony houses ants of a wide range of sizes. They have copper-colored heads and darker-colored abdomens, which may be reddish, brown, or black in color.
Fire ant nests look like dome-shaped mounds that may be up to 40cm high, though they may also be flat and look like a patch of disturbed soil.
They have no obvious exit or entry points, but fire ants will aggressively defend the mound if you accidentally step on it.
Fire ant nests can be found in a variety of places, including:
- In lawns and unused cropland
- Alongside roads
- In pot plants
- In stores of topsoil and mulch
- Under logs and stones
- Under firewood, timber, or pallets
- In untidy or overgrown areas
- Next to buildings and other structures
- Near dams, rivers, and ponds
- Around tufts of grass in open areas
Types of fire ants
Fire ants into the United States can be broadly divided into two categories; imported fire ants, and native fire ants.
Red imported fire ants (RIFA)
RIFA are the most common type of fire ant in the United States, and were accidentally introduced to the country in 1933. They are highly aggressive with a painful sting and a gift for dominating other native insect populations. They are also capable of surviving extreme weather, reproduce rapidly, and have few natural predators. This species is a major pest in parts of North Carolina, Texas, New Mexico, and California.
Native fire ants
Native southern fire ants, tropical fire ants, desert fire ants, and little fire ants are all fire ant species that are native to the United States.
They all belong to the same Solenopsis genus as RIFA and, although they are not as aggressive, can inflict a sting that is every bit as people.
How to tell fire ants from other types of ant
Fire ants vs. red ants
Red ants and fire ants are both types of aggressive, stinging ants belonging to the genus Solenopsis. Both species are of similar size, so the main way to tell them apart is by the color of their bodies. Red ants are typically light brown in color, whereas fire ants have red and black abdomens.
Fire ants vs. black ants
Red important fire ants are the most common type of fire ant in the United States, but they aren’t the only type. Another species, called the black imported fire ant (BIFA) lives in parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. BIFA are darker in color than BIFA, and may be mistaken for other types of black ants.
However, only one other type of black ant (the little black ants) can sting. The sting of the little black ant is small and weak, and far less painful than those delivered by BIFA.
The most common type of fire ants in the United States is the red imported fire ant, which is in parts of North Carolina, Texas, New Mexico, and California. These highly hostile red and black ants can deliver a very painful sting, and will aggressively attack anyone who disturbs their mound.
Other types of fire ants in North America are classified as native fire ants. These species are less aggressive than the imported variety, but their stings are just as severe.