As if we didn't have enough critters to be worried about--scorpions, rattlesnakes, killer bees and black widow spiders--a new natural enemy has surfaced, and it is no laughing matter. The fire ant has been a hot topic of conversation since a napping three-month-old baby in the Phoenix area was killed by hundreds of stings from fire ants.
This is an unusual case, and neither the Arizona Department of Agriculture nor Arizona State University entomologists have been able to explain why the fire ants swarmed in this particular situation. Since this type of occurrence is rare, it is best not to panic if you see a few fire ants. It is prudent, though, to be aware of them.
Fire ants include a large group of reddish-brown to black ants. There are two types of fire ants we need to be concerned about. There are the Red Imported Red Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta) and Southern Fire Ants (Solenopsis xyloni). In the case mentioned above, the culprits were the Southern Fire Ants, which are native to Arizona.
To be honest, it is difficult for someone who isn't an ant expert to distinguish between the critters. Red Imported Fire Ants have been targeted for extinction by the U.S. government, and it has been trying for years to stop their migration across the country with limited success. We know there have been Red Imported Fire Ants documented in Arizona. According to The Arizona Department of Agriculture, our state has been successful, so far, at eradicating the highly aggressive Red Imported Fire Ant when it has been identified.
Although Southern Fire Ants are common here, and not as aggressive as their Red Imported relatives, as non-experts in the study of ants we should probably treat them all with caution. After all, I've read that it takes many samples for even experts to tell which ant is which!