Texas Primer: The Fire Ant

These tiny red invaders have survived chemical warfare. Why? Just to torment Texans.

Though the frontier is in flames, Texas has assumed the line of defense against the red imported fire ants. Natives of the Paraguay River’s floodplain in southern Brazil, the fire ants entered this country from a ship docked in Mobile, Alabama, sometime in the thirties or forties. Since then they have infested most of the southeastern United States and Texas. The march of fire ants has consumed 113 of our counties and 50 million acres. After infesting Hardin County in 1956, they quickly filled up the Piney Woods and blackland and coastal prairies—Texas’ extension of the Old South. Because hostile weather factors converge north and west of that area—fire ants are unable to survive freezes below 10 degrees or dry climates—the ants, and the buck, were supposed to stop there.

But fire ants adapt and disperse fanatically. When a flood threatens their existence, they abandon the mound in clumps that can reach the size of a basketball, then roll with the current until they find a shore. Humans help them travel, with highway and rail shipments of infested nursery stock, especially sod for lawn grass. Overgrazed ranches supply the favored habitat of short grassland. Fire ants have adjusted to cold winters in Lubbock by forsaking their mounds for the insulated warmth of partly buried walls. In the dry climate of Midland they find moisture in underground sprinkler systems. If they get past the desert Southwest, they’ll go all the way up the West Coast.

Why has a single species of ant conjured up visions of an environmental Maginot Line? In rural areas the hard mounds damage plows and other farm equipment. Infested tracts contain upward of forty mounds per acre, and in pastures the aggressive ants swarm right up the noses of grazing livestock, reportedly even killing calves born near a mound. Because they like open spaces and an easy food supply, such as potato chips, in urban areas they despoil school grounds and parks. They defend their territory by attacking in large numbers, and they sting repeatedly. On humans, the resulting large, itching welts burn more than most ant stings, which accounts for the species’ name. The next day, white blood cells raise pustules against the alkaloidal toxin. The ugly sores are easily infected. According to some allergists, up to 10 percent of the population may have violent reactions to the venom. Victims itch madly, their


More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...