|Immediately after a red imported fire ant nest is disturbed, the ants launch a merciless attack.|
Given the choice of wearing shoes or not wearing shoes, I always opt for going barefoot.
But being barefoot is dicey in a state where the potential for ant bites is great. Floridians whose unshod feet touch the ground are apt to come home with painful stings inflicted by a tiny insect with a long name: Solenopsis invicta Buren.
Nicknamed RIFA, for red imported fire ant, it's one of two species of fire ants that live in the Sunshine State. The RIFA is widespread, but Florida is also home to a less common species known as the native or tropical fire ant. Neither of the species takes kindly to being stepped on, and they respond to such unwarranted behavior by attacking mercilessly.
If you spend any time outside, you know what I mean. According to a University of Arkansas report, these powerful dirt movers infest more than 275 million acres of land in the United States and Puerto Rico and inject their venom into millions of people annually.
Although we call them ant bites, what we really experience are painful stings.
Fire ants grab the attacker's skin with their strong mandibles to inject a venom that causes an immediate, localized pain. Within minutes, a red, raised spot usually develops, followed a day later by a white, pimple-like pustule that itches like crazy.
Because each ant can sting repeatedly — and because several ants often attack simultaneously — multiple stings are the norm. It's not uncommon to run away from a fire-ant encounter with dozens of stings.
Ubiquitous as fire ants are in our lawns, fields, driveways and sidewalks, they were not always a part of the Florida landscape. In the early 1900s, these South American natives made their way into the southern United States by way of cargo ship. Early seafaring vessels used soil as ballast, and it's likely the dirt-dwelling ants came aboard inadvertently and were then unloaded in America.
Once here, the ants prospered. Colonies multiplied and spread rapidly. Red, imported fire ants now populate every county in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana. They exist in parts of Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Puerto Rico. They have even made their way to California, Missouri and across the Pacific to Hawaii.
The insidious fire ants can't tolerate cold. If temperatures drop to freezing for more than a couple of weeks, the ant colonies die. Fire ants dig into their complex underground burrows for protection. Although they don't hibernate, they are increasingly less active when it's cold outside.
Although it isn't exactly barefoot weather, winter is the safest time to venture outdoors shoeless in Florida. I mention that because as of this past week — if judged by fire-ant activity — winter is officially over. My feet are proof. At the start of the week, I was going barefoot, but by the end of the week, I wasn't. My toes were so dotted with ant bites that I refused to leave the house without some sort of foot covering.
From an entomological point of view, fire ants are fascinating critters. They have complex social systems, unbelievable strength and an impressive ability to adapt to a broad range of environments. But that doesn't mean I have to like them.
The bottom line is that these small insects with the big sting are painfully annoying, practically impossible to avoid and incredibly difficult to eradicate. The best we can do is tread carefully and keep a spray bottle filled with vinegar handy. If applied immediately, white vinegar helps quell the discomfort of a fire-ant attack.
Being barefoot may be my preferred state, but practicality trumps preference when it comes to fire ants. I may hate shoes, but I love the way they protect me from ant bites.