The Mystery of the Red Ants
Following the long red line.
Last night I was on an early evening hike around my property, when suddenly I came upon a long, wide path of red ants on the move. They were coming from an adjacent draw in a swarm that was six inches wide and as far as I could see in both directions, and the ants were going both ways!
Since they were right on the fence line, I couldn't immediately determine whether they were coming or going from my place. I decided to follow the long red line.
They headed through brush, under a clump or two of bear grass, up a steep bank, and under a shagbark juniper before ending in a pile of juniper duff.
I either found the head of the column or they were disappearing down a hole that was to be their new home. Why had they suddenly left their old home? Had they been driven out by ant invaders? Did the ant queens have a squabble and one decided to leave, taking all of her followers with her?
About half, the ones heading for the hole, were carrying what appeared to be tiny white eggs, and there musta been a hundred thousand of the tiny critters.
This particular colony of ants was uniform in color — a light, bright red-orange that appeared almost opaque. They were also uniform in size, being between 1/8 and 1/4 inch in length. And that was about all I could tell in the fading light.
The next morning, before sunrise, I was out and up to the spot; the ant-line was gone. I again returned in the early afternoon armed with a magnifying glass to try and get a good "look-see." I went to where I thought their den hole was located in the duff, but I couldn't find a single ant in the heat of the day.
Now, having red ants on my mind, I trekked on over to an established red ant hill 100 yards away, which had been on the property before I was there. This species is about double the size of the "new" ones, and they are darker red (maroon) with a lighter red abdomen. They are extremely busy in both the early morning and late evening, but not so much during the day.
But that mound seemed deserted, too; I even stomped on the hill trying to arouse them to no avail. I will say that in the nine years that I have passed by this colony, they have never seemed agitated at my presence, even when I stood right over them. In fact, they appear to be highly docile for their "suspected" species (more on that later).
So far as I know, and I've been all over my property, there are only three varieties of red ants here. To be sure, there are a bunch of other ant species here, but I'm concerned with red ants for now, and what their potential for harm is.
I remember, early on, when I had first moved to New Mexico, and I was servicing a customer who lived on the outskirts of Lordsburg (I owned a carpet-cleaning business). It was a warm and sunny, pleasant day, and as I finished with a piece of equipment, I put it on the driveway to be cleaned when I was totally finished.
I began cleaning the equipment, when all of a sudden I felt a red-hot bite, then many more upon my legs, arms and torso! I looked down and to my horror, my equipment and the pavement were covered in tiny, bright-red ants! They were swarming my sneakers and jeans, too. They all were about 1/8 inch in length. Fire ants! Evidently, they had a home in the crack of the concrete.
Boy, did my lady customer laugh at my predicament, offering not a whit of help. I couldn't drop my jeans in her presence, so I endured, until I cleared off my arms and torso. I had her leave so I could clear the ants from my legs and used water from a hose to clear the equipment and pavement.
Now I wondered if my "new ants" were the dreaded fire ants? In the cool of the eve, I ventured back to the tree, armed with my trusty magnifier. They were out in numbers but incredibly, their color had now changed; now their thorax was a darker red-brown and their abdomen was still the same bright red-orange with just a hint of creaminess or opaqueness.
I then ventured over to the old mound and subjected them to the scrutiny of the "glass." Their head and thorax was a deep maroon and their abdomen was red. I also have two other ant hills of ants the same variety as these.
My question was: Are any of these the dreaded imported fire ant, or are they New Mexico's own native fire ant that has also been known to swarm and attack both humans and pets?
So I went to the web. I soon learned that the imported variety is the number-one topic on the Internet when I punched up "red ants in New Mexico." A description and pictures soon swept away my fears that these were the fiercer imported ants. Imported fire ants are red with a brown abdomen — the opposite of mine.
With that out of the way, my next question was: What are these native varieties? I obviously have three. Could they impose a risk? Now the waters became very murky.
First of all, there are some 240 species of known ant species in New Mexico! Concerning the red ones, I could learn very little, and I could never identify "mine."
I did learn that red ants in our state have "functional" stingers. Some varieties do bite, but they do so to hold on while they sting their foe or prey!
Harvester ants can be red, but they can also be other colors, and they attack their victims with a painful, venomous sting, while biting, too! They can be as dangerous as fire ants and the colony will swarm if disturbed.
A further study seems to indicate that my new colony may very well be harvester ants; the colors are right.
I'm still not sure what the larger varieties are. Since I first began this research, another new colony of reds has appeared right smack dab on my hiking trail. They appear to be much like my original colony (maroon head and thorax) but a smaller size like the new colony. Confused yet? I am!
Now to the heart of this column: I've explained all of this because I need help in knowing what I've got. I'm appealing to you "antemologists" to write in and tell me what you think these species are, and if they indeed are harmful. Are they beneficial? I'd appreciate the help!
As always, keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may The Forever God bless you too!
When not ramblin' outdoors, Larry Lightner lives in Silver City.