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The red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) is a native of southern Brazil that currently inhabits at least 9 southern states in the U.S. These areas are currently under quarantine, as issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), regulating the export of certain items that have the possibility of carrying ant infestations to other parts of the country.

Red imported fire ants were accidentally introduced into the United States at the port of Mobile, Alabama in the 1930's. By the mid-1970's, these ants had spread into much of the southeastern states, and have now been spotted in the Midwest areas of the U.S. as well.

Red imported fire ants commonly sting animals and people, leaving behind a stinging, red, irritated blemish.

Adult red imported fire ants are reddish to dark brown in color and occur in five forms:

1. Minor workers that are 1/8 inch long
2. Major workers that measure 1/4 inch
3. Winged males that are 1/3 inch
4. Winged females that are 1/3 inch
5. Queens, which measure 1/3 inch

Fire ant mounds vary in size, but are usually in direct proportion to the size of the colony. A mound that is 2 feet in diameter and 18 inches high typically contains about 10,000 workers, several hundred winged adults, and one queen.

During the spring and summer, winged males and females leave the mound and mate in the air. After mating, the male soon dies, and the female becomes a queen. The female may fly as far as 10 miles from the parent colony to begin a colony of her own. Once she drops to the ground, her wings are lost. Only a few queens survive after impregnation. Most queens are killed by foraging ants, especially other fire ants. If a queen survives, she sheds her wings, burrows into the ground, and lays the eggs, which will begin a new colony. A typical queen may lay more than a thousand eggs each day. Eggs hatch in 5-7 days into legless larvae that will then go through several growth states. Within two weeks, this larva becomes a worker fire ant. The fire ant worker lives an average of 1-6 months, depending on its size. Larger workers live longer, as do unmated males and females.

Fire ants prefer oily, greasy foods, though they also feed on many other insects. To find food, workers forage around their mound and travel in underground tunnels to distribute and hide their find. Fire ants typically invade homes, picnics, buildings and anywhere food is readily available.

Getting rid of the fire ant has proven to be a difficult task. For those with red ant problems mounds close to home, there are several alternatives:

1. MOUND DRENCHES. Mound drenches are insecticides diluted with water. To be effective, the drench must actively trickle down through the mound and make contact with most of the fire ants. Ants contacted by the drench die in less than 24 hours. Drenches should only be used when the risk of human contact with fire ants is high and the infestation must be eliminated immediately. High-risk areas include home lawns, school grounds, parks and other public places.

2. BAITS. Ant baits can be used to treat individual mounds. Baits are insecticides that have been mixed with ant attractants. Workers ants carry particles of the bait back to the mound and feed them to the queen. Although the mixture often kills the queen, workers often are able to remain active inside the mound for several weeks before being affected. Baits are slower acting, but easier than drenching.

The key to reducing the threat of fire ant infestations is prevention. That means removing exposed food sources that may attract ants. Keep all foods covered and properly stored. If fire ants to enter or invade your home, your objective must be to reduce the potential of stings immediately. Use insecticides labeled appropriate for indoor use. Products containing pyrethroids can safely be used in homes and public buildings. Be sure to apply to high use critical areas, such as kitchens, living rooms, and bathrooms. Long-term removal can be achieved only through locating outdoor mounds and treating.

Red fire ants are common at picnics. To avoid heavy infestation, always picnic above ground. Leaving food unattended or improperly stored will only invite ants to join you. Picnic at tables or chairs and keep food well covered or away from eating areas.

The bite of a fire ant is relentless. The stinging, red, irritated blemish often swells and takes 3-5 days to heal completely. Antibiotic creams or hydrocortisones can help to relieve pain and swelling.