The term fire ant refers to a number of species of stinging ants. Although the United States has several native species of fire ant, none of these are as aggressive and dangerous as the red imported fire ant, or RIFA, a species accidentally imported from South America in the 1930s. RIFA colonies have spread throughout the southeastern United States as well as parts of New Mexico and California.
Fire ants are small, growing up to 1/4 inch in length. They are reddish-brown to black in color. RIFA colonies have 100,000 to 500,000 members. They like fresh-tilled earth and are found in pastures, lawns, gardens, parks, school yards and golf courses. Red fire ants thrive due to their aggressiveness, large numbers and lack of natural predators. They attack birds' nests, reptiles and small mammals, and they have even been known to kill newborn cattle and deer.
RIFA colonies are extremely dangerous to humans. When mounds are disturbed, worker ants swarm up a victim's arms or legs, pierce the skin with their mandibles and inflict multiple stings. The venom causes intense itching, burning and pain. It leads to blisters that turn into pustules. Broken pustules result in secondary infections. Allergic reactions can cause sweating, swelling, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, slurred speech, shock and even death.