Description of the Pest
Fire ants are characterized by having a 2-segmented petiole (the narrow waist between the thorax and abdomen), 10-segmented antennae with a 2-segment club, and a stinger. There are two native fire ant species likely to be encountered in California that can be confused with the red imported fire ant. The more common one, the southern fire ant (Solenopsis xyloni ) is 2.5 to 4.5 mm in length and found in coastal and inland regions. It is very similar in appearance to the red imported fire ant. The southern fire ant differs from the red imported fire ant in that it is bicolored, with a reddish head and thorax and a dark brown abdomen. By contrast, the red imported fire ant is an almost uniform dark reddish-brown and 3 to 6 mm long. Both species have workers of mixed sizes.
Red imported fire ant mounds are frequently built up into domes, while the southern fire ant mounds are irregular craters. Mounds produced by red imported fire ant can reach 10 to 12 inches in height, however the size of mounds will vary with soil types, and mounds may be absent. A characteristic difference between these species is the aggressiveness of the workers. Although they will both sting, the ferocity of the red imported fire ant is notable. Any object touching their mound is immediately attacked and stung, and the workers will quickly run up a stick that touches the mound. It is still uncertain whether the red imported fire ant colonies in California have one or multiple queens per colony. This could have a significant impact on the selection of treatment strategies.
Red imported fire ant can chew on soft plant tissue and growing buds. Their stinging behavior can be hazardous to people and pets. Their sting is noxious and produces a pustule on the skin that can scar if it gets infected. They can clog irrigation lines and short-circuit electrical systems.
Although red imported fire ants are not present in all areas of California, they are a serious pest and are subject to quarantine regulations. In Southern California, state and federal officials have placed Orange County and portions of Los Angeles County and Riverside County under quarantine that limits the movement of articles including plants and soil. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has established the Red Imported Fire Ant hotline (1-888-4FIREANT or 1-888-434-7326) to report any suspected occurrence of red imported fire ant in California.
Bait products are available for controlling red imported fire ants in areas where they are established. See the Fire Ant Pest Notes for more information. Contact CDFA or your county Agricultural Commissioner's office for information on approved treatments.