Fire ants: What to do when stung?

Found throughout south east Queensland, Fire ants are renowned for their aggressive nature and painful sting. They are particularly dangerous to those with allergies, as they tend to swarm and sting all at once.
Found throughout south east Queensland, Fire ants are renowned for their aggressive nature and painful sting. They are particularly dangerous to those with allergies, as they tend to swarm and sting all at once.

Found in large swathes across South East Queensland, fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are an exotic ant species that are renowned for their painful sting and aggressive nature.

They are considered one of the worst invasive species to reach Australian shores. Not only do they represent a threat to public health, but also to the environment, the economy, and every day living.

For this reason, there is a National Fire Ant Eradication Program underway to find, contain, and destroy their incursions in South East Queensland.

Continue reading for more information on the Fire ant, what to do if you are bitten by one, and how to reduce the risk of Fire ant infestations in your home and local community.

We also cover insect bites in the following first aid courses:

You can head to our Locations page to enrol in a course near you.

Appearance

Fire ants, otherwise known as Red imported fire ants, have the following identifying characteristics:

  • 2 - 6 mm long, with each nest comprising a variety of sizes
  • Copper- or reddish-brown in colour with a darker brown-black abdomen
  • Their waist section has 2 segments

Distribution

Fire ants are native to the South American countries of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

They were accidentally introduced into Alabama in the 1930s, and due to their highly adaptive nature, they have become pests in:

  • America
  • China
  • Japan
  • Taiwan
  • The Philippines

They were first detected in Australia in 2001 at the northern port of Brisbane, though they may have arrived up to 20 years earlier.

It is thought that these invasive ants breached Australian shores via shipping containers from America.

Our climate, landscape, and absence of natural predators has subsequently allowed them to infest roughly 660,000 hectares in south east Queensland, from Lockyer Valley in the west to Redlands in the east, and from Moreton Bay in the north to the Gold Coast in the south.

Fire ants tend to build their nests in large expanses of greenspace, including parks, school yards, and golf courses. While their nests sometimes look like dome shaped mounds of dirt, they can also look like mere patches of disturbed soil.
Fire ants tend to build their nests in large expanses of greenspace, including parks, school yards, and golf courses. While their nests sometimes look like dome shaped mounds of dirt, they can also look like mere patches of disturbed soil.

Habitat

Fire ants tend to build their nests in sunny open areas, such as lawns, parks, roadsides, golf courses, and school yards. They have also been found in rotten logs, building walls, and along pavers.

Their nests can look like dome shaped mounds of dirt or simply flat patches of disturbed soil. When built into mounds, Fire ant nests can be as high as 40 cm.

The ants enter and leave their nests via a myriad of underground tunnels that radiate outwards and can be up to 30cm long. As such, there are no visible entry or exit holes.

Danger to humans

Fire ants are considered dangerous to humans, as they have a painful sting that can cause swelling, redness, and a long-lasting burning or itching sensation.

Their stings can also develop small blisters or pustules a few hours or days after the fact, which can become itchy and cause infection if scratched repeatedly.

Likewise, Fire ant stings are particularly dangerous to those with allergies, as:

  • Fire ants communicate with one another through stridulation and chemical secretion, and they swarm and sting all at once when their nest is disturbed
  • They have strong mandibles and can hang on to their victim while stinging repeatedly
  • Contrary to other insect stings, Fire ant venom builds up in the body

These factors increase the amount of venom in the body and the risk of an anaphylactic reaction, which is characterised by:

  • Hives
  • Facial swelling
  • Rapid pulse
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Collapse

Other impacts

As well as being dangerous to human health, Fire ants represent a major risk to the health of our environment, economy, and everyday living. For instance:

  • They can swarm the faces of pets and livestock that are exploring their surroundings nose-first, which can subsequently cause blindness and suffocation
  • They feed on native fauna that nest or forage on the ground, including insects, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals
  • They feed on and damage native seeds, as well as predate or disturb insects and animals that help pollinate native plants
  • As they tend to build their nests in larges expanses of greenspace, Fire ants can disrupt the usability of sport and recreation areas
  • They can destroy irrigation and harvesting equipment, as well as agricultural and horticultural crops, which can increase costs to agricultural businesses

In it is unsurprising, then, that Fire ants are regarded as a category 1 restricted pest under the Biosecurity Act 2014, and any suspected sightings of them must be reported as a matter of law.

You can report Fire ants to the National Fire Ant Eradication Program, a biosecurity initiative delivered by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and Biosecurity Queensland to eradicate Fire ants from south east Queensland by 2032.

Nationally cost shared by federal, state, and territory governments, this program has already eradicated 6 Fire ant incursions since its inception in 2017.

First aid for a Fire ant sting

  1. Move the casualty and others away from the fire ants
  2. Calm and reassure the casualty
  3. Apply a cold compress to the affected area to reduce pain and swelling
  4. Gently wash the affected area with soap and water
  5. Leave the blisters intact
  6. Monitor for signs of an allergic reaction
  7. Report the incident to the authorities and ensure the area is closed off to reduce the chances of future stings

If the casualty begins exhibiting signs of an allergic reaction, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance, follow the Australian Resuscitation Council's anaphylaxis treatment guideline, and follow DRSABCD and be prepared to perform CPR.

Final thoughts

Fire ants are an invasive ant species found throughout south east Queensland.

These highly adaptative critters have an aggressive temperament and a painful sting, and so represent an enormous threat to Australia's health, economy, and environment.

Fire ants have been known to build their nests in open, grassy areas and sometimes under timber, logs, rocks, pavers, or bricks. If you suspect a Fire ant-infested area, contact the National Fire Ant Eradication Program.

And to learn more about identifying and treating insect stings, book a general first aid course or a child care first aid course at a Location near you today.

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