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. Flotillas of fire ants are a real thing that happens in Houston—and elsewhere—when it floods. This is the clever little insects, who stay afloat and stay alive during their own life-threatening emergency situations.
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.
Inside the floating colony, no one ant stays submerged for too long as they hold on to one another, forming a buoyant mesh-like structure that also traps air bubbles they can use to breathe, Vox reports. The queen stays safe in the center of the mass, while workers carry larvae in their mouths, even moving some of the immature ants to the bottom of the raft to help it stay afloat. The floating colony stays together until it reaches a dry area or object.
— Mike Hixenbaugh (@Mike_Hixenbaugh) August 27, 2017
— Omar Villafranca (@OmarVillafranca) August 27, 2017
The strange phenomenon of floating fire ants was also seen during floods in South Carolina in 2015. Earlier this year, residents in Alabama were warned of the risks posed by floating colonies of red imported fire ants when Tropical Storm Cindy entered the state. Experts say the best way to stay safe is to stay out of floodwaters completely, as they can carry not just ants but also dangerous currents, alligators, debris, and human waste.
That means it remains virtually stalled near the coast and continues to drop heavy rain on the Houston and Galveston areas. In the past 48 hours, numerous spots in the region have measured more than 25 inches of rainfall.
The hurricane center says Harvey’s center was expected to drift off the middle Texas coast on Monday and meander offshore through Tuesday before beginning “a slow northeastward motion.”