Floating fire ant nests are common in floodwaters

In the Houstonia

by Katharine Shilcutt

THERE ARE PLENTY OF REASONS not to wade through flood waters unless absolutely necessary for a life-threatening emergency situation. Those reasons include:

  • Not being able to see dangerous debris under the water
  • Getting sacked by a floating manhole cover
  • Not realizing how strong the current is
  • Encountering rogue wildlife like alligators and snakes
  • Realizing you’re also wading in raw sewage
  • Floating fire ant mounds

Wait, what

Yes, flotillas of fire ants are a real thing that happens in Houston—and elsewhere—when it floods. This is how the clever little insects stay afloat and stay alive during their own life-threatening emergency situations. Bless them. They’re just trying to make it, like the rest of us. Even if they’re horrible little ankle-biters.

You may have been among those who thought floating fire ant mounds were a myth, an urban legend. A quick perusal of some very disturbing, nightmare-inducing YouTube videos will dispel that idea.

“Floodwaters will not drown fire ants. Instead, their colonies emerge from the soil, form a loose ball, float, and flow with the water until they reach a dry area or object they can crawl up on,” explains Paul R. Nester, a specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “Floating fire ant colonies can look like ribbons, streamers, mats, rafts, or an actual “ball” of ants floating on the water.”

If you have to get in flood waters, make sure you’re dressed for it: cuffed gloves, rubber boots, any protective rain gear that will prevent ants from getting on your skin. “If you are in a row boat, do not touch the ants with the oars since they can ‘climb aboard’ via the oars,” warns Nester.

If you do get the wet ants on your skin, rub vigorously to get them off, because water alone won’t dislodge them. “However,” Nester notes, “a spray made of diluted biodegradable dishwashing liquid may help immobilize and drown them.”

In closing, fire ant flotillas are real, you don’t want to encounter them, and you do want to stay indoors at all costs while the rains from Hurricane Harvey continue to keep the city swamped. Stay safe, Houston—and seriously: stay off the streets.

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