Houston Officials Warn Of Floating Fire Ant Colonies (Photos)

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Hurricane Harvey has wreaked havoc across the Houston area, leaving thousands homeless and many more without proper access to food, water or power. It has also created another issue -- floating colonies of fire ants.

With floodwaters covering the area since Harvey made landfall Aug. 25, colonies of fire ants have been left stranded and searching for shelter, according to reports from several Houston journalists compiled by USA Today. Due to their ability to cling to one another, fire ants have formed "living rafts" in standing floodwater, prompting warnings from officials to stay away.

These ant "flotillas" are created as fire ant colonies are destroyed, leaving the ants scrambling for somewhere solid to build a new colony. As they wait to find dry land, the fire ants grab onto one another to help form the living raft, according to a publication from Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Service.

"Floating fire ant colonies can look like ribbons, streamers, mats, rafts, or an actual 'ball' of ants floating on the water," reads the publication, describing the makeup of the living rafts to include all members of an ant colony.

"Avoid contact with floating mats of fire ants," it advises. "If you are in a row boat, do not touch the ants with the oars since they can 'climb aboard' via the oars. Occasionally, floating ant masses are encountered even indoors in flooded structures."

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The Royal Society also published a study that showed the ant raft is constantly sinking, but the ants regenerate it by pushing dead ants to the bottom to create a sort of floor. The study also showed the ants figured out the most solid structure of the raft through trial and error and must relearn it each time. 

Officials have advised people to avoid standing in floodwaters, if possible, to ensure little contact with the ant colonies.

"If one of those rafts comes in contact with you, or you try to break it apart, it will likely disperse and crawl up you," said Tim Davis, an entomologist at Clemson University, according to USA Today. Once the ants are on the skin, they will start to bite.

Residents should also remain aware of fire ants as the flooding subsides, as ant rafts will look for new places to start colonies once the land begins to dry out.

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"Be aware that fire ants can be underneath anything," reads the Texas A&M publication. "When picking up debris, pay attention to what is on, under, or in it -- especially if the debris has been sitting in one area for several days. Fire ants love to get under carpet strips, furniture, and old wood to re-establish their colony."

Sources: USA Today,Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, The Royal Society / Featured Image: Maggie/Flickr  / Embedded Images: Omar Villafranca/CBS News via Daily Mail, Daniel Schneider via Daily Mail

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