Red Imported Fire Ants

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Red Imported Fire Ants outside a house in Stafford VA

 

Red Imported Fire Ants

Red imported fire ants are native to the central part of South America, but have become established in the United States. In our area, they are rare, and when they do appear, they are more common in Virginia than in Washington DC or Maryland. The spread of the Red Imported Fire Ant has been linked to commerce, with the ants arriving on trucks, trains, or other vehicles, typically in nursery stock.

As in all ants, the Red Imported Fire Ant undergoes complete metamorphosis, which consists of four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. A mature queen can lay hundreds of eggs each day. After 7 to 10 days, the eggs hatch into grub-like larvae, and after another 1 to 2 weeks, the larvae molt into a quiescent pupal stage. Pupae resemble curled-up adults and cannot move. Over the next 1 to 2 weeks, the pupae acquire the reddish-brown pigmentation of adults. In the final molt, female pupae become either adult workers or reproductives.

New colonies are established after mating flights by female reproductives and males. The males die after copulating while the newly mated queens seek out nest sites. Fire ants are not strong fliers but sometimes can fly miles with the wind before landing. They are attracted to reflective surfaces such as pools and truck beds where they will land, and in the latter case, sometimes be transported for hundreds of miles. In the more typical case, a newly mated queen lands on the ground, removes her wings, and then searches for moist, soft soil where she digs a small hole. Inside the hole, she seals the entrance and begins laying eggs. Once a critical number of adults have developed from the eggs, colony size increases rapidly with nests becoming distinctly visible mounds of soil within six months. After one or two years, the colony matures and produces large numbers of alates in preparation for the mating flights in spring. Mating flights will take place at other times if the weather is favorable. Alates prefer to fly after it rains on warm, clear days with little wind.

Red Imported Fire Ants have two forms; the monogyne (single queen) form which has one queen per colony, and the polygyne (multiple queen) form with a range of 2 to over 700 queens per colony (the average is 50). Monogyne colonies are territorial; thus, workers from different colonies will fight. Polygyne colonies are not territorial and nests may consist of many mounds. As a result, they are larger than monogyne colonies and will have more mounds in the same amount of area. Polygyne infestations may have hundreds of mounds per acre, while monogynes have only 30 to 40 mounds per acre. Areas with polygyne Red Imported Fire Ants have been reported to have nearly two times more workers than monogyne areas. Large, mature monogyne colonies can have over 230,000 workers, while polygyne colonies can have as many as 500,000 workers per colony. In addition to mating flights, polygyne colonies can also spread by fission or budding, an adaptation that may allow them to invade a location that is unfavorable for mating flights. Their mounds can be large - up to a foot and a half in diameter (18 inches).

The Red Imported Fire Ant has an omnivorous diet and opportunistic feeding habits, and they feed on any plant or animal they encounter. Their primary diet, however, is insects and other small invertebrates, including some that are crop pests. They are also scavengers, and feed on carrion. In heavy infestations, Red Imported Fire Ants saturate the environment and become a dominant ecological force. As a consequence, coexisting species of ants, other invertebrates, and vertebrates suffer and are sometimes eliminated. In the Southern portion of the United States, the negative effects of the Red Imported Fire Ants on animal diversity are extensive.

The Red Imported Fire Ant is notorious. This is mainly due to their aggressive defense of their nests, accomplished with their painful sting, which many individual ants will inflict in unison after crawling up the legs of an unwitting victim. To sting, each ant must first grab the skin with their mandibles for leverage, then insert its stinger by curling up its abdomen. The venom of the Red Imported Fire Ant contains piperidines, which cause a burning sensation, and proteins, which can cause life-threatening anaphylactic shock in a small percentage of the population (less than 1%). The sting causes a white pustule to form on the skin within 24 hours.

Red Imported Fire Ant workers are polymorphic, ranging between 1.6 and 5 mm long. Their body color is an almost uniform, dark reddish-brown. The winged male and female reproductives (alates) are larger than the workers. Female reproductives are 8 mm long and similar in color to the workers. Males are black in color. Red Imported Fire Ants have a two-segmented pedicel and a stinger. Their antennae are 10-segmented with a two-segmented club. The clypeus has three teeth.

 

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