Ants in Florida

For Floridians, the presence of ants is an almost daily reminder that the peninsula and its tropical climate favor natural wildlife over humans. Floridians should know well the types of ants and the threats they pose. When a Floridian sees an ant, he can generally place it in one of three categories: dangerous to humans, destructive to property, or harmless. Knowing these differences can save time and money, while better helping Floridians to enjoy the benefits of southern living.

Chief among concerns is the ant’s threat to human safety. Indeed, Floridians have learned to keep their eyes open when walking on unpaved ground; their number one enemy, the fire ant, is often not far away. The sting of the fire ant is painful, and can itch for weeks. Several dozen stings can be debilitating, and hundreds could result in death. In July 2000, an eighty-seven year old lady, residing in a nursing home and confined to her bed, was bitten so many times by ants that she died (Cramer). Fire ants have also killed other elderly and infants over the years.

While these threats remain very real, perhaps more common is the threat some ants pose to Florida property. Commercial and residential structures are constantly under attack by the ant, nature’s most productive creature. The most common are leaf-cutter ants, which can destroy entire crops in weeks, the household “sugar” ant, a small ant that eats anything sweet but is easy to contain, and the black carpenter ant.

Although Florida has spent considerable time passing building codes to protect Floridians from termites, little effort has been directed toward the carpenter ant. The termite has greater numbers than the carpenter ant; millions of subterranean termites live beneath each square acre of Florida. However, termites are more easily protected against. Termites eat wood, preferring decaying wood, while carpenter ants simply bore through wood to build their nests. Since carpenter ants don’t eat the wood they destroy, they are comfortable in even arsenic-treated wood, the lumber found in Florida homes. They can often live undetected in buildings for years, coming out only in the dark to forage for food and water.

The tiny white-footed ant has also begun to threaten south Florida. First sighted in Miami in 1990, they live in colonies of more than one million, and are beginning to migrate north. Although it has no bite or sting, it can “cause air conditioners and pool pumps to short circuit” (”White-footed Ants”).

Knowing the destructive nature of ants, newcomers to Florida may wonder if there are any truly harmless ants in Florida? The unfortunate truth is that all ants feed on plants or other animals. This in turn places them squarely at odds with human expansion. Sometimes, human effort to destroy ants is overspent. Consider that fire ants have been known to reduce the number of weeds among domestic plants in Mexican tropical lowlands (Holldobler 199). According to entomologist George Ordish, “In the United States the fire ant’s attacks got worse after thousands of acres had been sprayed with powerful insecticides” (4). State officials are now considering using a rare imported fly to kill fire ants. University scientists say the fly poses no risk to Floridians, but time will tell if this effort succeeds, or causes more complex problems.

In summary, the threat to Floridians from ants varies by species of ant. Whether the threat is to human safety, property, or only a perceived threat, it signifies the continuing struggle of man’s dominion over the earth. If Floridians have difficulty controlling ant attacks against vegetation, buildings, and people, it is possible that a significant growth in ant population could some day result in an evacuation of Florida. In the final analysis, the warm, hospitable climate of Florida could be the proving ground that dictates whether man or insect inherits the earth.

Works Consulted
Journey to the AntsCramer, Kelly. “Ant Bites Killed Woman, Ruling States; The Nursing Home Resident also had Heart and Lung Disease, the Medical Examiner Says.” Sarasota Herald Tribune 19 July 2000, BV1.
Holldobler, Bert, and Edward O. Wilson. Journey to the Ants. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1994.
Nursing Home Faces Fines in Ant Attack: State Officials Request Daily $3,050 Penalty.” The Florida Times-Union 13 June 2000, B-3.
Ordish, George. The Year of the Ant. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978.
Vevers, Gwynne. Ants and Termites. New York: Mc-Graw Hill, 1966.
White-footed Ants Gain a Tiny Foothold; The Pests, with Colonies of over 1 Million, are Starting to Pop Up in Southwest Florida.” Sarasota Herald Tribune 13 May 2002, BS1.

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