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Did Carolinas really have millions of floating fire ants during Hurricane Florence?

Fire ants create a “raft” to survive floodwater

These fire ants are bunch up and float together to survive.
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These fire ants are bunch up and float together to survive.

Fox Carolina called it the Carolinas’ “post-hurricane horror.”

Huge numbers of fire ants were reportedly forming “rafts” to escape Hurricane Florence’s flood waters, sending them floating down neighborhood streets, into yards.

“I don’t think this is real,” one person commented on Facebook, seeming to echo what many others were saying about the stories. “Locally, haven’t heard a word.”

Experts at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences beg to differ, however.

Not only are floating rafts of fire ants a thing, but it’s something Carolinians can expect to see more in coming years.

One reason is the invasive fire ant population is continuing to spread across the Carolinas, said Adrian Alan Smith, head of the museum’s Evolutionary Biology & Behavior Lab.

But an equally important factor is global warming and the impact it is having on tropical cyclones, says NOAA. Cyclone-related rainfall is expected to increase, as will the occurrence of “very intense tropical cyclones,” said a June 2018 report from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

The severe floods of Hurricane Florence introduced floating fire ants in a way many Carolinians may never have seen, Smith said. Not only were more ants effected, but they had to float farther to escape, he said.

A typical mature colony of fire ants can be in the 100,000 range, Smith said, meaning millions could have been floating to escape the storm.

These small clusters are just the beginning. Fire ants bunch together and form ant "rafts" to survive.

“Fire ants typically float until they hit dry land, and when you have widespread flooding, they will float for days,” Smith said. “If no land can be found, they will float indefinitely. That’s when you get reports of people bumping into them.”

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There’s another point that should be made, he adds.

Floating fire ants are vulnerable and in a defensive mode, and research shows they produce more venom when the colony is searching for a new home, Smith said.

They can be more aggressive and unlike bees, they sting multiple times, he said. However, the venom is only deadly in cases where someone is allergic, he added.

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[Millions of venomous, floating fire ants were a threat during Hurricane Harvey last year.]

Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs
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