The United States has 22 species of harvester ants. Harvester ants typically remain outside in their expansive underground nests. They prefer the dry, desert-like conditions found across the American southwest and Mexico.
As the name suggests, harvester ants diligently harvest grass seeds that they grind up for food. They store massive amounts of the resulting ‘bread’ in their colony’s granary for year-round consumption. The ants will travel more than 30 miles from their nest in search of food. They leave a chemical trail behind them with a distinctive scent that will guide them home again at the end of their journey.
During mating season, swarms of winged reproductive ants take to the air. Neighboring colonies coordinate their mating season to improve the chances of success. All males die after mating, and the majority of the reproductive females will succumb to predators or the harsh desert climate.
The females who do survive burrow into the ground to begin their own colonies as egg-laying queens. The new queen will produce only worker ants for the first three to six years. After this time, she will begin producing reproductive ants. Harvester ant colonies are incredibly long-lived. A single colony can grow to as many as 10,000 to 20,000 ants and live up to 12 years. Some reports indicate that queens can live for up to 30 years.
Though most species of harvester ants are only moderately aggressive, all will sting when disturbed, making it difficult to deal with an infestation. They have a painful, poisonous sting that’s been compared to both a bee and paper wasp sting. Red harvester ants are among the most venomous species in the world, and bites from this variety can be fatal. Just 12 stings can kill a four-pound rodent.
Redness, swelling, and pain are the most common symptoms of a harvester ant bite. However, individuals who are allergic to the venom may experience anaphylaxis. Other signs of an allergic reaction to a harvester ant bite include dizziness, tightness of the chest, trouble breathing, hives, and nausea. You should always consult a professional exterminator for help with a harvester ant infestation, as this is a very dangerous species when disturbed.