Recent downpours in South Carolina have brought to light that teamwork and ingenuity helps fire ants survive floods by banding together and constructing the ‘life raft’ that saves them all.
- Solenopsis invicta, is the only specie of fire ant that can create this kind of raft
- Their bodies are naturally water-repellent
- The process takes up to 100 seconds, with the Queen and larvae protected in the middle
- They can survive for several weeks on the water before they must find dry land and food
Say what you will about these dreaded pests with painful bites and who have caused nightmares for homeowners, but they certainly can survive. Their exquisite ability to band together and form a floating raft out of their water-repelling bodies keeps them alive. It’s quite an astounding feat of nature when it finds a way to keep itself from drowning by holding strong to teamwork.
The recent torrential rains in South Carolina have state officials deeming it as ‘the 1,000-year storm’. According to their statements, 550 roads are still flooded and the cost of fixing them will reach billions of dollars. Locals are making their way through knee-deep waters and evacuating their homes.
However, fire ants are simply floating above it all. The little pests keep their strong work ethic in place when facing extreme rains. According to William MacKay from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Texas, they have a unique ability of surviving. When their mounds get flooded, this specie of fire ants travels up to the top and start creating a protective structure.
The tiny insects will create a “ball of ants”, with the queen and the larvae in the middle, in true ‘Save the queen!’ fashion. This excellent contraption takes advantage of their oily bodies and water-repellent outer shelf to create an alive raft that protects them and allows them to float freely through the waters.
And, amazingly, these efficient designs take no time at all. In fact, as stated by MacKay, who has studied fire ants for 40 years, the entire process lasts about 100 seconds. The insects quickly band their legs and mouths together, holding on tight and surviving.
In spite of what most might assume, those at the bottom are not the most unfortunate. Due to their ability to retain pockets of air on little fine hairs on their bodies, being one of the many who gets drenched is not that big of an issue. However, the same could not be said for the tiny workers on the edges of the life raft.
According to scientists at Georgia Tech, the fire ants at the edges might not be there by choice. Instead, a key feature of the life-saving construction implies fire ants essentially trapping their neighbors at the edge. It’s a kind of ‘cooperation’ through ‘coercion’.
As far as MacKay knows, this specie of fire ants, Solenopsis invicta, are the only ones able to design these survivalist contraptions. They have adapted themselves to their natural environment, such as swamp lands in Brazil, to survive the regular flooding. But, while they can certainly float around through the floods, they can’t swim.
So, after a few weeks of letting themselves carried by the waters, they need to find dry land and food in order to keep on living.
As warned by entomologist at Clemson University, Tim Davis, even if this beautiful display of resilience and teamwork is fascinating, locals should certainly turn the other way. If anyone disturbs or breaks apart their tight formation, these little pests will start crawling up your body.
And then, the pain of their bite might certainly make you forget and stop admiring their innate ability to survive floods.