By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
And the worst was yet to come.
"We can't ever have any hope of eradicating fire ants," says Homer Collins, an entomologist with the USDA in Gulfport, Mississippi. "Fire ants continue to spread despite efforts of state and federal agencies to retain their spread."
The spread of the ants is troubling because, unlike other aggressive species, fire ants are known to attack and kill for no apparent reason. Scientists are confounded by the insect's traits, which remain a mystery despite years of study.
"Most things have some kind of behavior which we can rationalize and explain and make sense. Like, we all know that you go hit a flower that has a honey bee on it and it doesn't sting you; it goes and buzzes off," says Justin O. Schmidt, a research entomologist with the Center for Insect Science at the University of Arizona.
"The only time they attack you is when you are threatening their babies or their colonies. Almost all forms of life are that way, but fire ants are one of those oddballs. There's many ants that hurt a whole lot more than fire ants, but again, they don't go out of their way usually to sting you. But for some reason fire ants will--automatically," says Schmidt, who specializes in the study of stinging insects.
As anyone who has accidentally crossed a fire ant's path knows, the tiny insect aggressively attacks its target without regard to the size of the victim. The ants are known to attack and dismember fledglings in the nest and newborn calves on the prairie. By weight, fire ant venom is as powerful as a cobra's, scientists say.
"Fire ants clamp onto their targets with powerful jaws and sting their victims repeatedly," according to the USDA. "Each sting injects a dose of venom that causes a burning sensation. The stings raise itching blisters that can become infected. In sensitive victims, the stings can cause anaphylactic shock [symptoms include breathing difficulties and fainting] or even death."
Schmidt, who devised the "Schmidt Pain Index" to measure the pain of insect stings to humans, rates the fire ant bite as a one on his scale of one to five. The sting of a honeybee is a two. At the top of the scale, five, is the sting of a tarantula hawk, which "blows out your mental circuits and ability to withstand pain," Schmidt says.
The sting of one ant is unpleasant. The sting of many ants is torturous, at least in the eyes of law enforcement. In Jackson, Mississippi, police in 1998 filed charges of aggravated assault against three men accused of pouring fire ants on four other men to induce them to talk about a robbery. In February, a Florida man was charged with a felony for ordering his 9-year-old daughter to sit on an anthill as punishment. The child was bitten all over her body. Her father was sentenced to 15 years in prison for torturing her and for "punishing" his other children in similarly brutal ways.
Schmidt says receiving many, many fire ant bites would be like taking hundreds of burning hot needles and pressing them repeatedly onto your skin.
"If I were strapped down over a fire ant colony and couldn't move and had no control over my own personal safety or flight, it's got to be absolute, sheer terror. It's nothing else I could imagine it would be," he says.