Fire ant is the popular name for ants in the genus Solenopsis. There are over 285 species worldwide. They are stinging ants and most of their common names reflect this, for example, ginger ants and tropical fire ants. Many species also are called red ants because of their light brown colour. Fire ants have a dedicated venom-injecting sting, which injects an alkaloid venom, as well as mandibles for biting.
A typical fire ant colony produces large mounds in open areas, and feeds mostly on young plants, seeds, and sometimes crickets. Fire ants often attack small animals and can kill them. Unlike many other ants, which bite and then spray acid on the wound, fire ants bite only to get a grip and then sting (from the abdomen) and inject a toxic alkaloid venom called Solenopsin, a compound from the class of piperidines. For humans, this is a painful sting, a sensation similar to what one feels when burned by fire—hence the name fire ant—and the after effects of the sting can be deadly to sensitive people. The liquid is both insecticidal and antibiotic.
Fire ants nest in the soil, often near moist areas, such as river banks, pond shores, watered lawns and highway shoulder. Usually, the nest will not be visible, as it will be built under objects such as timber, logs, rocks, or bricks. If there is no cover for nesting, dome-shaped mounds will be constructed, but these are usually only found in open spaces, such as fields, parks and lawns.
The venom of fire ants is composed of alkaloids derived from piperidine (see Solenopsis saevissima). Some people are allergic to the venom, and as with many allergies, may experience anaphylaxis, which requires emergency treatment. Other problems are concentrated to the site of the sting.
The sting swells into a bump, which can cause much pain and irritation, especially when several stings are in the same place. The bump often forms into a white pustule, which can become infected if scratched, but if left alone will usually flatten within a few days. The pustules are obtrusive and uncomfortable while active and, if they become infected, can cause scarring.
First aid for fire ant stings includes external treatments and oral medicines. There are also many home remedies of varying efficacy, including immediate application of urine or aloe vera gel, the latter of which is also often included in over-the-counter creams that also include medically tested and verified treatments.
External, topical treatments include the anesthetic benzocaine, the antihistamine diphenhydramine, and the corticosteroid hydrocortisone. Antihistamines or topical corticosteroids may help reduce the itching.
Oral medicine include antihistamines. Severe allergic reactions to fire ant stings, including severe chest pain, nausea, severe sweating, loss of breath, serious swelling, and slurred speech, can be fatal if not treated.