One Way to Kill Fire Ants Instantly: Eat Them

One way to get rid of invasive fire ants, and to protect yourself against their nasty stings, may be to eat them.

According to research published in the journal Biological Invasions, invasive and poisonous fire ants may be eaten by lizards to protect them against being stung, with lizards that ate the ants having a higher (and more effective) immune response.

Fire ants are a venomous group of ants, found around the world. Solenopsis invicta, also known as the red imported fire ant, is an invasive species and pest in many countries including the U.S., Australia, China and Taiwan.

The FDA estimates that more than $5 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on medical treatment, damage, and control in areas infested by the fire ants, as well as $750 million in agricultural damage including veterinarian bills, livestock loss and crop loss.

fire ant with jaws
Stock image of a fire ant. Fire ants are invasive species, with new research finding that lizards eat them to gain immunity from their venom. iStock / Getty Images Plus

"The venom in fire ants contains mostly alkaloid compounds with a small amount of proteins. For most people when stung, these molecules induce inflammation which produces a flare or pustule at the site of the sting," Laura Vogel, a Professor of Immunology at Illinois State University, told Newsweek.

But, the discovery that eastern fence lizards eat these invasive fire ants in order to develop immunity against their painful stings may have opened a new avenue for control.

"This is preliminary research, which shows that by eating the fire ants, fence lizards are exposing themselves to the venom through their gut-associated immune system," Catherine Tylan, a graduate student at Penn State and lead author of the paper, told Newsweek.

"This may let their immune system develop a response to the venom in a less dangerous manner than by being stung, in addition to the benefit that any fire ants they eat are no longer available to attack and sting them," she said.

Current control methods include the use of pesticides, which are mixed into corn grit bait, as well as chemical treatments on an entire ant mound. Additionally, pouring hot boiling water onto an ant mound may help destroy a colony, although this usually only kills around 60 percent of the ants in the hive.

Would eating the ants be a better and more beneficial way to control the invasive population, and simultaneously protect us against their stings?

"[One] approach to protection [in humans] is immunotherapy where increasing doses of the venom are injected in a controlled manner over several months in order to induce change the immune response," Vogel said. "This strategy causes the individual to produce IgG antibodies instead of the IgE antibodies and they are able to tolerate the substance in the future."

According to Vogel, inducing tolerance by oral immunotherapy is used for people with food allergies, such as peanut butter allergies, and could also be used in the case of fire ant stings.

However, this may not be the best idea, Vogel said, as there are more effective and less dangerous ways to kill the ants and also develop immunity to their venom.

"While theoretically oral tolerance might be induced in a similar way by feeding people fire ants, it's unlikely this would catch on since an effective, injectable immunotherapy is already available and route of exposure is different," she said.

"In a small percentage of people however a severe allergic reaction can occur, akin to what happens in people who are allergic to bee stings. This anaphylaxis can be life threatening which is why individuals with known sensitivity to fire ant venom are advised to carry an auto injectable epinephrine device."

"Usually eating one will just cause mild pain and localized swelling if it bites or stings you," Bobbi Pritt, a microbiologist, pathologist, and Director of the Clinical Parasitology Laboratory at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, told the Wall Street Journal. "If they don't have an EpiPen, eating a bug they're allergic to can be fatal," she said.