Houston, Texas is only beginning to take stock of the damage Hurricane Harvey has inflicted. But now the city has another problem on its hands.
Floating colonies of fire ants, as many as 500,000 in one group, are banding together to stay above water in flood-wracked Houston—and they bite, according to Houstonia magazine, though no one has been bitten yet amid Houston’s flooding.
“Floodwaters will not drown fire ants,” Paul R. Nester, a specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, told Houstonia magazine. “Floating fire ant colonies can look like ribbons, streamers, mats, rafts, or an actual ‘ball’ of ants floating on the water.”
The ants flee from their underground homes when floodwaters start rising, and begin to form a loose ball with one another. Then they can ride along the surface of the water until they reach land or another dry space to crawl onto.
Although the ants’ survival strategy sounds like something Stephen King would dream up to make your skin crawl, it’s actually a tactic the ants have been using for millennia—both to escape floods, and to travel long distances on water, according to USA Today.
Houstonians wading or boating through flood waters should beware, though. The venomous fire ants will crawl onto just about anything—including you.
“If you are in a row boat, do not touch the ants with the oars since they can ‘climb aboard’ via the oars,” Nester said.
What happens if fire ants do get onto humans? Well, they can sting—and just one sting can induce an allergic reaction in those who respond to their venom, according to Patch. And in some people, the venom can act as a deadly poison, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. In fact, about ten Americans die each year as a result of fire ant encounters.
This isn’t the first time floating fire ants have emerged amid floods. When floodwaters threatened South Carolina in 2015, many reported seeing mounds of the invasive fire ants floating around, according to USA Today.
If the ants do get on your skin, Nester suggests you quickly rub your skin until they disperse. He also tells Houstonia that, while water won’t wash them off, “a spray made of diluted biodegradable dishwashing liquid may help immobilize and drown them.”
There haven’t been any reports yet of anyone getting bitten by the little red insects during the flood, according to CBS, and at least some Twitter users seem to have a sense of humor about the fleets of fire ants.