Last week, Janet Wallace Roedl Shiansky, a 68-year-old South Carolina woman, went into anaphylactic shock and died after being attacked by ants while she was gardening. The ants that attacked her are called fire ants and are the most aggressive ants in the world -- and they are spreading to other parts of the country.
Entomologist Mike Raupp said that when fire ants attack they usually cause minor red welts and a pustule that will fade in a couple days. In about five percent of cases, fire ants can actually cause death.
"In those cases, where people have a volatile reaction, some of them actually do die," said Raupp. "It's a severe allergic reaction -- throats swell up and people literally suffocate. But that is very rare. Most people won't react that way."
Shiansky died after several ants ran up her sneaker last weekend and stung her foot. Her husband brushed them off and treated the stings with ammonia, according to the Associated Press. A few minutes later, he went inside to check on her and found her lying on a bed unresponsive with her sunglasses still on. At the hospital, doctors found that her brain had begun to swell. She died the next day from what doctors said was an allergic reaction that caused her airways to close.
Fire ants, which often attack and kill small animals like kittens, are primarily found in the Southeast, Raupp said. Their range extends from North Carolina across Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas -- and there is also a colony in California.
"You might find some in other parts of the country -- but there aren't large concentrations in the North," Raupp said. "If you see them in the northern states it's largely due to landscaping transplants. The fire ants are transported on plants that are taken from the South and planted in the North. … But most fire ant stings happen to people in the southern states."
Fire ants have become such a problem in the Southeast that phorid flies have been imported to combat them. The flies lay larvae on the ants. When the larvae hatch they eat the fire ants' heads.
There are 280 species of fire ants found all over the world. One species, known as the red imported fire ant, has become an "invasive" species in the United States. It was introduced to the country via Brazilian cargo entering the port of Mobile, Ala., around 70 years ago.
Raupp said that the main difference between regular ants and fire ants is their aggressiveness. They look the same.
"They live in a mound," Raupp said. "It's a large mound that you will be able to see on the ground. If you bump into that nest, they will swarm out immediately and aggressively attack you, and no other ants will do that. There are no other stinging ants in North America. So if you get stung by an ant, you can pretty much assume it's a fire ant."
Fire ant stings very distinctive, Raupp said. Mosquito bites usually go unfelt and only are noticeable when they begin itching. Fire ant bites are noticeable immediately. The bites begin as little red marks that turn into white pustules or blisters, Raupp said. They go away after several days unless they become infected.
Common reaction to fire ant bites:
Allergic reaction to fire ant bites:
Treating fire ant bites: