What Are Fire Ants and How Do I Get Rid of Them?

Our hot take on fire ants: Here's what you need to know to protect yourself, your children and your pets.

A nasty sting from a fire ant is nothing to trifle with, but there are other reasons you don’t want these pests anywhere near your home or garden. It’s estimated that the costs associated with fire ants can run into the billions annually, from medical treatment to structural damage (they can eat through electrical wires) to infestation control. And that’s not counting the loss of livestock and crops.

What Is a Fire Ant?

Fire ants are arthropods that build anthill mounds in soft soil for their colonies. Unlike other ant species, their mounds lack a central opening — you’ll see the ants entering from all directions. There are more than 20 species of fire ants worldwide. In the U.S., the two main types are native and imported.

Native fire ants consist of four major subspecies: native southern fire ants, tropical fire ants, desert fire ants and little fire ants.

Imported red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) were accidentally transported from South America sometime in the early 1900s. These invasive pests spread like wildfire and have now become common in the Southern and Southwestern U.S. In some cases, they have displaced their native counterparts completely.

Pro tip: If you notice a native fire ant mound in your yard and it’s not causing any issues, consider leaving it alone. Removing it can make it easier for the more aggressive imported fire ants to move in and take over.

What Do Fire Ants Look Like?

Fire ants look pretty much like the other ants you find around your home or garden. What sets them apart is their bright red to black color and their antennae, which have 10 distinct segments — nine occurring after the first bend (elbow).

Here’s how to spot the difference between native and imported fire ants:

Native fire ants

  • Uniform in size;
  • Vary from 1/16-in. to almost 1/4-in. long;
  • Range from bright red to black;
  • Mound measures one-to-two feet high.

Imported fire ants

  • Workers are different sizes (polymorphic);
  • Red and black compound eyes;
  • Two-segmented bodies;
  • Stinger at tip of the black gaster (bulbous posterior portion);
  • Large colonies (up to 300,000);
  • Mound can be three feet high and two feet in diameter.

Pro tip: Because not all fire ants are red and not all red ants are fire ants (plus, many identifying characteristics are too small to see with the naked eye), you may want to gather a few in a jar and take them to a professional exterminator for proper identification.

How Do You Get Fire Ants?

Fire ants are found in warm and tropical climates. They need water to survive, so homes with ponds, leaky pipes and moisture issues are more susceptible to infestation.

They also like to eat. Fire ants are attracted to oily and greasy foods, other insects and seeds, as well as dog and cat food.

Are Fire Ants Dangerous?

Yes. Warns Ed Spicer of Pest Strategies, “When you approach and disturb them, they’ll bite you and then sting you with their abdomen. Their stings are painful and can sometimes feel like that part of your body is on fire (hence their name).”

Native fire ants are slightly less hostile than imported fire ants. Although rarely lethal, native and imported fire ants will swarm out of the nest in a matter of seconds if threatened. (Don’t kick a fire ant mound.) The sting, an injection of a toxic venom into the skin, has been known to trigger serious allergic reactions in some people.

If you are stung by a swarm of fire ants and experience the following symptoms, seek medical help immediately:

  • Difficulty breathing;
  • Trouble swallowing;
  • Nausea;
  • Dizziness.

Drifting Ant Alert: During floods, thousands of fire ants are capable of clumping together to form a living raft to carry them to dry ground. Should you accidentally bump into one of these floating firestorms, you could be in for a world of hurt.

Signs of Fire Ants In and Around the Home

Because fire ants mostly build their colonies outside and underground, the first sign of their presence is a mound. Fire ants prefer the outdoors and only come indoors if their mound has been destroyed by heavy rains, or they need to shelter from extremely hot, dry weather.

Other signs that indicate you have fire ants are:

  • Burrowing underground (soil appears fluffy after a rain);
  • Ant trails;
  • Itchy and burning skin, followed by the forming of pus-filled pimples;

How To Get Rid of Fire Ants

To rid yourself of fire ants, target your elimination efforts on the mound (nest). Drenching the nest with toxic liquid pesticides is a proven way of killing fire ants. You can also use granular or powdered insecticides on the top of the hill and/or around the yard.

If you have kids and/or pets, here’s a non-chemical solution: Pour three to five gallons of boiling water into the nest. This will kill a majority of the ants and their queen without risking your health.

If you suspect there are a series of nests scattered around the property or one inside your home, baits and traps get the best results, although they take time to work. Another less effective yet viable option: Mix citric acid with hot, soapy water and pour it into the mound.

Pro tip: Just knocking down a mound is wholly ineffective. If an anthill is destroyed, the colony will just go ahead and build another.

How To Prevent Fire Ants from Getting In the Home

Take the same preventive measures to stop fire ants from entering your home as you would any other type of ants.

  • Seal off entry points;
  • Store food and compost in closed containers;
  • Keep floors clean to disrupt scent trails;
  • Create a barrier around the perimeter of your property by spraying with liquid insecticide or scattering a granular version.

If store-bought treatments fail to work or if you’re concerned about applying insecticides safely around your family and pets, call in a professional exterminator. Average costs for a single treatment can range from $150 to $500, depending on the severity of the infestation. Many companies offer a discount for signing a contract for multiple treatments.

Toni DeBella
Toni DeBella is a freelance travel, lifestyle and digital content writer based in a medieval hill town in central Italy. Her work has been featured in such publications as Fodor's, The Telegraph, Walks of Italy, Italy Magazine, Frommers.com, Touring Bird (via [email protected]) and more. Most recently she authored the 2020 edition of DK Eyewitness Sicily travel guide. When Toni is not roaming around Europe, you'll find her tending her alley-side container garden or honing her clay-court tennis game.