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August 9, 2013

Some ants can be a 
royal pain

The Daily Star

---- — The other day my cousin emailed me some information on an insect that was new to me – the lionant.

Now this creature is neither a lion nor an ant but a seemingly intelligent insect that makes a cone-like depression in the sand. It then hides in the bottom and catches ants as they wander through its trap. The lionant feeds on the bodily fluids of the insects it catches. I guess my unfamiliarity is because we don’t have a lot of sand here, but we have our share of ants. 

Later that day I was bush-hogging the waist-high goldenrod from a section of our old pasture. All of a sudden there was thumping noise as the fast moving blades of the mower took off the top of an ant hill. The dirt flew and ants were scattered as the nest was remolded to ground level. It was a normal thing, but it gave me something to think about as I went back and forth across the field for the next monotonous hour. 

A few years ago, Pat and I went to Texas to visit her sister. That was the first time I encountered fire ants. 

Fire ants are an invasive species that hitchhiked to the U.S. on a cargo ship that docked in Mobile, Ala., in the 1930s. Over the years they spread all across the south and southwest and have caused billions of dollars in damage.

Fire ants are very aggressive and attack anything that gets near their nest. That’s where I enter the story.

My wife wanted to bring home some prickly pear cactus, so it was my job to collect a few of the pads that she could put into the soil to grow. After all they have beautiful blooming flowers every once in a while. 

We stopped along one of the many country roads next to a clump of the spiny plants. Now let me tell you, cutting off sections of a cactus without a pair of heavy gloves is not the easiest thing that I have done. No matter where I put my fingers some of those barbed spines were right there to stab me. I managed to get a couple of the pads off the plant before my leg felt like it was on fire. Apparently, I had stepped on or near a fire ant nest.

Now fire ants just don’t crawl up across your sneakers and bite you randomly. No, an entire army of the quarter-inch monsters scramble up your leg and when their commander gives the order, they all bite at once. Actually, a fire ant doesn’t bite you. It uses its jaw to get a good grip and then stings you.

So here I am, straddling a bunch of waist-high spiny cactus with a sharp knife in one hand and a bunch of prickly pears in the other when it feels like I’ve just strolled barefoot into a bed of red-hot coals. Somehow, I managed to instantly change locations and start brushing away the attacking hoards of insects. 

So how did fire ants spread so far across the U.S.? A single queen ant can lay 3,500 eggs a day and will live five to seven years. Talk about illegal immigration! 

Anyway, as I continued to mow my field on the day after England’s future king was born, I hit another of those insect high rises. Over the roar of the diesel tractor and the thunder of the cutting blades I could faintly hear a million little ant voices scream as their home was destroyed by my mechanical tsunami. I think I heard them yell, “God save the queen!”

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at