Storm Harvey: Deadly floating fire ants provide a new peril for those engulfed by floods

The danger of the deadly floating fire ants surviving in Storm Harvey floods

Fire ants are surviving despite Storm Harvey hitting Texas (Credit: Wikimedia)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Another threat is facing those affected by Storm Harvey - and those affected won't be able to see it until it's right upon them.

Dangerous fire ants are floating on the floodwaters in groups, forming their own living rafts to stay together - a survival tactic which is perfectly adapted to the swollen rivers and flooded roads of Houston right now. They're known for their amazing teamwork and ingenuity, as well as for their aggression - in fact they're the most aggressive species of ant anywhere in the world. 

The fire ant family actually comprises several different species, which have colonised large parts of the southern United states. The largest of these species, the red imported fire ant, was introduced to the country 70 years ago through Brazilian cargo and has been munching its way across the country ever since. Today it's got a foothold across the south, and Texas is one of its favourite breeding grounds.

The fire ant possesses a fearful bite, which the feisty insect uses to get a grip on the skin of its target, before using its abdomen to sting, causing a burning sensation to the victim. The ant can sting multiple times and each time this usually causes a small red raised itchy spot on the skin.

Often the bite fades within a few days but in some cases the problem can develop into something much more serious. In 5% of cases, or one in 20, it's fatal.

Deaths occur when people suffer an extreme allergic reaction to the fire ants, meaning their throats swell, causing them to suffocate, according to ABC News. Those who have an allergic reaction to the ants can also suffer vomiting, disorientation, wheezing and dizziness.

Those particularly at risk are people who are particularly allergic to bee and wasp stings. In the case of bees this covers about 2 million people across the US.

If you're ever stung by a fire ant, ammonia mixed with water is recommended to help ease the sting as it destroys properties of the protein in the fire ant venom. However, if this doesn't work victims should see a doctor.

Fire ants reproduce very quickly meaning the threat of the insects to those affected by Storm Harvey could be increasing by the day. Fire ant queens can live for up to seven years and lay up to 1,000 eggs in a day. Just one colony can also contain up to 400,000 fertile females.

For those caught in the grip of Storm Harvey, which has already claimed at least 14 victims, a tiny insect might seem the least of their worries, particularly with more rain expected this week.

But whether you're reading in Texas or elsewhere, you'd be foolish to take these remarkable creatures for granted.