Everyone knows how unsightly an insect problem can be, even something as innocuous as ants. In a world filled with insidious biting insects like Bed Bugs or Mosquitoes and the filthy German Cockroach, it’s important to demystify pest ants and put them in their proper place as a pest. Unlike many pests of public health importance, the ant’s direct impact on humans is minimal when compared to other commensal or parasitic pests.
First things first, let’s talk about direct harm: bites and stings. An estimated two million Americans are allergic to bee and wasp stings, with approximately 500,000 hospital visits and about 50 deaths a year attributed. Although ants are closely related to bees and wasps, ants have different nest defense techniques and types of venom in their stingers, if the ants even sting (not all species can). The aggressive nature of wasps, especially in defense of their nest, can cause hundreds of stings to an unwilling victim in moments. Even worse, wasps will continue to attack and invader once they have been “marked” by the first few stings. Swarms of wasps or bees will follow a person for great distances before abandoning the pursuit.
As you can see, the unique biological and behavioral nature of wasps and bees allow them to deliver a massive and immediate armed response to anyone attacking their nest and will continue pursuit until the attacker is driven well off. All of our native Ant species have none of these attributes. Our local stinging ants
have small stingers with moderate venom loads markedly different from the highly specialized hunting apparatus wasps and hornets have. Without the ability to fly, ants cannot really overwhelm a healthy human even if they are attacking the colony itself, at normal walking speeds the average human will easily outdistance any ant pursuers. Ant bites are even less dangerous then stings and often don’t break the skin. Although there are dangerous ant species they are confined to different continents for the most part. The meanest ant we have in the US would be the Red Imported Fire Ant, whose closest colonies are some 1000 miles distant from the state of New Jersey.
Another important impact insects can have on humans is though the spread of disease, either directly or indirectly. Mosquitoes and Fleas, through the spread of disease, have easily killed more humans than all the wars ever fought combined. Just think of Malaria and the Black Plague as a few representatives of the many diseases carried by these pests and their impacts on world history. Most of these insect-borne diseases are highly evolved life forms in their own right. They require elements of the insect metabolism for full development and tend to be unique to a certain species of insect and its close relatives. The biology is very simple on this matter, there are no human diseases that utilize ants in their reproduction and dissemination. It is interesting to note, however, that ants are utilized by parasites to affect cattle. A parasite known as a Liver Fluke has a very complex life cycle to find its way into a cow’s digestive system utilizing both ants and snails. Humans can be affected by Liver Flukes, but the transmission is through consuming unwashed vegetation, not by utilizing the ant-snail-cow transmission process.
A more common way for insects of all kinds to spread disease is through the process of “Mechanical Vectoring”. This means that insects may acquire pathogens, germs or foreign bodies on their exoskeletons and then unwittingly deposit them on human foodstuffs or other items. This transmission is purely accidental and relies heavily on chance and previous exposure to pathogens. Species of roaches and flies are notorious for this mechanical vectoring considering their environments, food sources and behavior. Considering the places a roach or fly might walk moments before they walk across your potato salad, its completely understandable. Although ants are possible mechanical vectors in their own right, their behavior doesn’t always put them in the same situations as other insects. Ants food selection tend to limit the amount of pathogens acquired initially and communal grooming behaviors tend to remove any pathogens from the insect’s exoskeleton. This does not mean that we are entirely safe from harm. Pest ants like Pharaoh Ants have attained major pest status in hospitals as they have been found in wound dressings, (gross, I know, sorry).
All in all, most ants we interact with have very little ability to impact humans except in their ability to spoil food and ruin picnics. They cannot bite or sting with enough ferocity or venom to be a real danger. Ants do not have the ability to pass diseases on to humans from other sources and have almost no ability to pass disease from human to human. Any medical impact these tiny insects might have for us would be almost accidental, except in a few specific circumstances.
For the most part, ants are a purely aesthetic pest, invading our kitchens and picnics for a few short months a year. Of course there are Carpenter Ants that damage homes and everyone understands the feeling of finding ants in the sugar bowl, but by and large that is as bad as it gets. Don’t let a fear or mistrust of insects convince you that ants are dangerous or scary. As a matter of fact, I think they’re kind of cute….
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