Floating fire ants a hidden danger in floodwaters

Alabama officials are warning residents to be on the lookout for mounds of floating fire ants that could form in floodwaters as Tropical Storm Cindy makes its way inland. 

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System said in a warning Wednesday that the floodwaters will not kill the state's invasive fire ant population. The ant colonies can emerge from the soil and band together in a loose ball, which can float on the surface of the water.

"Floating colonies can look like ribbons, streamers or a ball of ants floating on the water," the statement said. "These amoeba-like masses contain all of the colonies’ members—worker ants, brood (eggs, larvae, pupae), winged reproductive males and females, and queen ants." 

And while it may sound like something out of a horror movie, floating fire ants often happen after flooding events. In October 2015, after a 1-in-1,000-year event ravaged South Carolina, several photographers captured what appeared to be mounds of floating fire ants. Months earlier, following deadly flooding in Texas, residents also reported seeing droves of ants in flooded yards.

In a 2015 interview, Tim Davis, an entomologist and Clemson University senior extension agent, told USA TODAY the floating technique by fire ants has been used for eons to escape flooding and migrate long distances. 

In under two minutes, fire ants can link together to assemble floating rafts, Davis told USA TODAY Network.

“If the water rises, they kind of all grab a hold of each other, and they can do this for several days, until they reach higher ground,” Davis said.  

Davis said it's not uncommon to come across the rafts of floating ants, and said they have even been found indoors after a flooding event. He said it's important for people to stay out of the flood waters and avoid the masses of ants at all cost. 

“If one of those rafts comes in contact with you, or you try to break it apart, it will likely disperse and crawl up you," he said. 

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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