SELMA, Ala.—An Alabama woman recently died of anaphylactic shock after sustaining numerous fire ant stings. Allergic reactions to fire ant bites are rare, but require immediate medical attention.
Fire Ant Stings May Cause Anaphylactic Shock
More than one fire ant sting can result in serious medical problems, even in people with normal immune systems. While most people can tolerate stings, severe allergic reaction occurs in less than one percent of the human population.
Dr. Kelly Palmer of Auburn University’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology said the white pustule created by stings is unique to the fire ant.
“When fire ants sting, they inject venom under the skin,” Palmer said. “This creates a characteristic white pustule. The pustule is sterile on the inside, so it is best to avoid scratching the area to prevent infection.”
Palmer said to alleviate the itching, place a cold pack on the area. An over-the-counter steroid cream may also help. It is important to follow the directions on the label and contact your doctor to be sure you will have no complications with other medications.
“If you have a known allergy, it is always best to follow the directions given by your physician,” Palmer said. “Make sure to have any medications for allergies with you at all times. Be sure those around you are aware of your allergies and know what to do in case of emergency.”
Because fire ants infest most areas in Alabama, Palmer said it is likely we will all encounter them at some point in time, therefore, if you have a known allergy it is best to be prepared.
Fire Ants in Alabama
Alabama Cooperative Extension System entomologist Dr. Kathy Flanders said fire ant control must happen year round to minimize fire ant problems.
“Fire ant colonies can survive for years,” Flanders said. “If left uncontrolled, in Alabama pastures and hayfields, we can expect 40 to 100 colonies per acre. Mating flights of winged reproductive fire ants can occur at any time of the year.”
Thousands of fire ants can live inside a single mound. When a mound is disturbed, hundreds of ants rush out, climb onto the disturbance and sting.
Not all colonies build mounds. Mounds are most likely to occur in wet weather and during the cooler months of the year. When it is hot and dry, fire ants are still present, but it is harder to see them because they are not building mounds.
Flanders said the mound is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Colonies can build their nests under pavement areas, or in sheltered areas next to landscape trees,” Flanders said. “Ants may move their colonies under a hay bale because it is cooler than the surrounding field. Occasionally they can nest in a hay bale. The best option is to remove bales from the field immediately after baling to reduce the likelihood of ants moving in.”
Controlling Fire Ants
Flanders said the most important thing to understand about fire ants is that they can be managed.
“A broadcast bait-based approach is often the best way to minimize fire ant problems,” Flanders said. “Applying baits during spring and fall, and following up with individual mound treatments of nuisance mounds is a good strategy.”
Flanders and other entomologists who deal with fire ants on farm- and crop-land on a regular basis recommend the Two-Step Method for fire ant treatment.
Dr. Fudd Graham, a researcher at Auburn University and a member of the Alabama Fire Ant Management Program and the School Imported Pest Management Program said in sensitive environments such as schools and homes with small children and/or known fire ant allergies, management is essential.
“These areas require intensive efforts to prevent accidental encounters with fire ants,” Graham said. “In such areas, the two-step method is often used to keep fire ant populations at bay. When dealing with schools it is essential that the staff, as well as students, are educated about the danger fire ants present.”
Graham said it is also important that the staff and students help to notify the principal about any fire ant mounds they see on school grounds. The principal will be able to contact the pest management professional to take swift action.
Fire Ant Information
Alabama Cooperative Extension professionals and other fire ant researchers across the country have made a concerted effort to compile important fire ant management strategies and fire ant treatment options. Visit the Fire Ant Community of Practice page on eXtension.org or search fire ants on aces.edu for more information.
Featured photo by USDA APHIS PPQ – Imported Fire Ant Station , USDA APHIS PPQ, Bugwood.org.