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Fire Ants & Hurricanes

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CBS National Correspondent Omar Villafranca tweeted the picture of fire ants formed into a “protective island” floating on flood waters in the city. The image has been retweeted more than 5,000 times. Colonies will link together to stay afloat even in the severe flooding Texas is experiencing. Fire ants displaced by water form “rafts”, linking together to stay afloat. They use this as transportation to find dry land for their next colony. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension service urge people to use caution around floating fire ant islands. “Avoid contact with floating mats of fire ants. If you are in a row boat, do not touch the ants with the oars since they can ‘climb aboard’ via the oars,” explained Texas A&M Agrilife Extension specialist Paul Nester. Nester also advises people to dress appropriately when working in floodwater. “Cuffed gloves, rain gear, and rubber boots help prevent the ants from reaching the skin. If they do, they will bite and sting,” he wrote. “Remove them imme­diately by rubbing them off. If submerged, ants will cling to the skin and even a high-pressure water spray may not dislodge them. However, a spray made of diluted biodegradable dish­washing liquid may help immobilize and drown them.”

What will happen in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey to the fire ant rafts will depend on how fast the waters recede and also what type of ants are interconnected. Fire ants originally form colonies around a single queen (monogyne), but somewhere along the line, some populations lost the ability to recognize other colonies. These mutant fire ants live in one big interconnected colony with multiple queens (polygyne). Alex Wild, curator of entomology at University of Texas at Austin, states, “If they’re polygyne, then that’s basically one giant interconnected colony and they’ll disembark and spread out but they’ll be fine,” says Wild. “If they’re monogyne, it’s going to be a territorial mess. Fights. Battles.” This occurrence truly is a phenomenon but it is quite common in hurricane aftermaths, with sitings of fire ant “rafts” in South Carolina in 2015 during a flood and in Katrina in 2005.

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