With over 12,000 ant species in the world, it’s no surprise that some have a painful, unpleasant, or even dangerous bite. While most people will face only mild discomfort from getting bitten or stung by the average North American ant, some people might be especially sensitive or allergic. Stay safe and informed about the types of ant bites you’re likely to encounter in the United States and what to do about them.
Image via Flickr by John Tann
While every ant species is a little different, most ant bites or stings are harmless inconveniences, leading to mild swelling, itching, redness, and mild pain. These symptoms can fade in anywhere from a few hours to a few days. There are some species, such as the bullet ant, whose stings are extremely painful, but they are not found in the United States. Take a look at the most common ant bites and stings in North America.
The term “fire ant bite” is slightly misleading, because fire ants, sometimes called red ants, do not inject venom with their bites. Rather, they use the stingers in their abdomens to inject venom. They bite the skin of a perceived threat to hold themselves to their victim while they sting the victim. As they cling to the skin using their jaws, they rotate their bodies, stinging the victim again and again. Before realizing what is happening, a person can be stung a dozen times by a single fire ant, which is part of why their bites can cause such strong reactions. Fire ant bites are sometimes painful and almost always itchy and uncomfortable. Some people have a dangerous allergy to fire ant venom.
Carpenter ants bite when their nests are disturbed. Some species only pinch with their jaws to startle their opponent, while others have an acid they inject with their jaws. This acid causes irritation, swelling, and a mild burning sensation, similar to several other ant bites. Overall, carpenter ant bites are less common than fire ant bites and their bites are considered less serious.
Harvester ants are commonly cultivated in household ant farms due to their large size. They are primarily native to the Southwest United States, especially Texas. One type, the red harvester ant, is similar to the fire ant in that it will sting out of self-defense. The venom from their sting can also be as potent as a fire ant’s.
Once stung, the skin will raise upward gradually. A welt develops similar to a bee sting and unlike the small white blister of a fire ant sting. The stings are slightly painful and usually itch for a few days to a week. For some individuals, it may take longer than a week for a red harvester ant sting to fully heal.
Acrobat ants are a less common species that enter human homes that were previously damaged by another pest, such as termites and carpenter ants, and feed on sweet or protein-rich foods. Their bites are mildly itchy, and they also emit an unpleasant odor when threatened.
Finally, crazy ants are a broad group of species named for their quick, erratic movements. They are fairly small and dark-colored, are not native to North America, and can be found all over the world. Crazy ants will bite in self-defense, but the itching, pain, and other symptoms that follow are usually mild.
Although symptoms vary depending on the ant and the person, some common effects include:
These symptoms usually subside within a few days to a week, or slightly longer for the elderly or people with more sensitive skin.
Most ant bites or stings are so mild that even allergic reactions to them are nothing to worry about. However, some people may develop more severe allergic reactions to certain ant bites or stings, especially if they get multiple stings. This is most commonly the case with fire ant stings. When some people are stung by a fire ant, they react with a range of additional symptoms, including:
If you or someone you know has any of these symptoms after being stung by fire ants, seek medical help immediately.
In most cases, irritating ant bites or stings can be addressed topically with products that are soothing to the skin, such as aloe vera gel, which is a frequent ingredient in over-the-counter insect bite creams. For the itching and swelling, topical antihistamines or corticosteroids are commonly used.
Various home remedies exist for ant bites, but they have not been verified and should not be trusted for treating many stings at once or for a severe reaction. Allergic reactions to ant bites can be fatal when not treated professionally, so do not take that risk. When in doubt, go to a hospital or consult a medical professional.
Once you’ve dealt with any actual ant bites, it’s important to address the core problem that led to the bites in the first place. For instance, if you were bitten by ants in your own home, you could have a nest somewhere inside, which will only grow into a bigger problem if it isn’t addressed soon. Some species, like carpenter ants, are even a sign of serious home damage. Consider getting professional ant pest control experts to look at your home and diagnose the situation. From there, you can relax and trust that the problem will be treated properly.
It’s also important to prepare and protect yourself against ants. When going outside in an unfamiliar area, wear shoes with socks, gloves, and full-coverage clothing. Manage the length of your lawn because tall grass will conceal and encourage ant mounds.
Though they seem small and innocuous, ants are not helpless, and when threatened, they will strike. These fascinating creatures can do more than harm large mammals such as humans, and you can learn more about the amazing feats of ants with our handy ant knowledge center, where you can learn how to identify ants, treat their bites or stings, and even how to run your own ant farm.