Red Imported Fire Ants, with their aggressive nature and painful stings, are beginning to infest California. Already, these tiny but destructive creatures have been found in a number of Southern California and Central Valley counties and are expected to spread even further unless everyone pitches in to help eradicate the pest. Red Imported Fire Ants are called "imported" because they are not native to this country. It is believed that they came to the United States from South America aboard cargo ships that docked in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1930s. Today, fire ants infest more than 300 million acres in twelve states across the southern United States, as well as Puerto Rico. Most recently, they are infesting California and New Mexico.

What do Red Imported Fire Ants look like?

redfire_1They are very small, ranging from approximately one-sixteenth of an inch to one-fourth of an inch, and are reddish-brown in color. They are different from most ants commonly found in California, but can't be distinguished from other ants just by looking at them.

Red Imported Fire Ant (Photo/University of California Cooperative Extension)

Where do Red Imported Fire Ants live?

They live underground and can be distinguished by the type of mounds they build on lawns, gardens, parks, fields, cemeteries and inside homes - just about any place they find moisture. The mounds appear as small piles of fine soil with small holes. These mounds can eventually resemble large gopher mounds that are often 18 inches across or larger. Red Imported Fire Ants also are attracted to electrical currents and can be found in electrical boxes, such as outdoor sprinkler systems, airport lights and swimming pool pumps.

Why Are Red Imported Fire Ants Threatening?

Red Imported Fire Ants have a fierce sting or "bite" that leaves victims with painful, itchy welts. In some cases, stings from Red Imported Fire Ants can even kill people who are allergic to their venom.

Red Imported Fire Ants also are a threat to wildlife and agriculture. They attack and kill pets and wildlife, such as quail, lizards, squirrels and baby deer. They also can attack agricultural workers, compete with beneficial insects and devour important crops, such as citrus, strawberries, and corn.

The threat to people and animals is another factor that distinguishes Red Imported Fire Ants from other ants. Other types of ants - both imported and native - pose no threat to people or to wildlife, other than being a nuisance.

How Can I Protect My Family And Myself?

Reduce your risk of being stung by dressing properly when walking, gardening or digging outdoors. Among the precautions you should take:

  • Wear gloves and closed-toe shoes with socks
  • Before you allow children to play outside, survey the area for ant mounds
  • Children should wear protective clothing while playing outdoors

What Should I Do If I Think I've Found Red Imported Fire Ants?

  1. Do not disturb the suspected mound or nest and don't try to kill the ants or destroy the nest yourself
  2. Call the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Fire Ant Hotline toll free at 1-888-4FIREANT. You will be asked questions to help determine if you have discovered a Red Imported Fire Ant infestation, and an expert will be sent at no charge to check it.

What Should I Do If I Get Stung?

  1. Elevate the extremity and apply ice or a cold compress to reduce swelling and relieve pain and itching
  2. Wash the affected area with soap and water to prevent secondary infection
  3. Keep the blisters clean and avoid scratching to help reduce the chance of infection and scarring
  4. Apply a topical ointment containing steroids and/or take an oral antihistamine to relieve the itching
  5. If the swelling progresses, if the area becomes infected, or if you suspect you could be experiencing an allergic reaction to the stings, you should seek medical attention immediately. An allergic reaction could include severe swelling, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, headaches and profuse sweating.