Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ants in Your Pants

The Red Imported Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta) was accidentally introduced to the United States in either Mobile, Alabama or Pensacola, FL between 1933-1945. They inadvertently hitchhiked along with imported goods from Brazil and have since spread across many of the southern states, including Florida. They often create large nest mounds of soil, inhabited by thousands of the insects. When disrupted, the first ant to encounter a threat to their home emits a pheromone, alarming the rest of the colony which then defend the nest by all stinging the intruder with vengeance.

Before MaLe's return to Ecuador, we visited the Florida Keys, driving the length of the Overseas Highway from Key Largo down to Key West where we enjoyed the Southernmost point in the Continental US (marked by this black/yellow/red thing),

the 57 "Hemingway Cats" occupying the late writer's historic if not tragically dumpy home

the over hyped Mallory Square and a fantastic sunset over Florida Bay.

But no sendoff sunset is complete without sitting on a mound of fire ants. With only a glowing segment of sun remaining as it submerged into the sea, a frantic MaLe began hoping around, swatting at her back and cursing in Spanish (several words that I am familiar with). I helped brush as many off as I could and pleaded with her to move, but regretfully she was only listening in Spanish at this point and continued to stand in the mound of ants while peeling off clothing. Eventually she understood and moved, but not before being bitten literally from head to toe but the rotten little ormegas.

Fire ant bites are nasty and leave a zit-like swelling for a few days. It's not pleasant. She was calmed by sundown and you'd never know by this picture what she had just endured.

This afternoon it was back to work for me with a trip into the sweltering 98 degree Everglades. As always, I joined my adventurers on the airboat and as we cruised along the well-populated alligator lake, I realized I was being peppered with tiny insects. I looked towards the bow and realized a raft of fire ants had made their way on board and were now being blown on me! I signaled to the airboat captain to stop the boat, which he misinterpreted as go faster, and more and more ants began to fleck my khaki shirt. ANTS! I yelled, but my full-on-freakout fell on deaf ears as the Cadillac engine continued to power the airboats airplane propeller and create just enough noise to drown out what I assumed would soon turn to my panicked sobs.

Fire Ants have the amazing ability to create a mass of ants, or a raft to protect them during floods. Water comes up, they gather in a ball and are magically transported to a new home. In this case - the airboat and eventually on to me. I survived with amazingly only one bite. Maybe the speed in which we traveled carried away the pheromone message to attack. Either way, MaLe and I both survived our ant encounters. Now that the rainy season is here, you gotta watch out for the ants who are constantly shifting their homes to drier ground.
(because it was requested...the MaLe Meez)

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