Beware of the Bugs: Fire Ants Can Kill Americans

ByABC News via logo
July 1, 2006, 1:47 PM

July 2, 2006 — -- 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.