Recently I was digging a hole to create a fire pit in backyard. I had been digging for about an hour when I decided to rest. But, when I sat down on a “Big Wheels”-style, battery-powered toy SUV to take a break, I suddenly felt pain around the seams of my socks, where fabric meets skin. Having had similar experiences a couple times already since moving to Alabama, I immediately looked down and confirmed my worst fear — I was under attack by Fire Ants!
I quickly took inventory of how many were on me and where they were located. There seemed to be about twenty of the little buggers, mostly concentrated below my knee in the shin area, though one or two somehow made it to my left elbow! Less than 20 seconds had elapsed since I first noticed the initial sting of pain. Fire ants are actually a species of ground-wasp and the pain you feel is caused by their stingers, which inject a neurotoxic venom into your bloodstream. True to their name and reputation, in that short span of time, I began to experience an agony akin to many hot-stove-blisters all at once, and it was unbearable!
My first thought was to brush them off with my bare hands, but the damage had already been done. I managed to get most of them off my pants and my sweater sleeves, but the pain from their poison was already in my veins; I needed to act quickly! All I could think was “head for the back door”, and I went running and leaping over piles of yard debris, and vaulted over the array of power-tools that I had left on the back-porch steps, with much careful forethought, and into to house. Once inside, I disrobed as fast as I could – I did not care if the neighbors could see me in my birthday suit; time was of the essence. My belt took longer to get off than I would have liked, but soon all my clothes were in a pile on the tiled bathroom floor.
Next, I had to do something — preferably non-toxic — to neutralize, eliminate, and destroy any fire ants that might have still been clinging to my clothing. In haste, I first spread a handful of baking soda on my garments, then I covered the whole bathroom floor with food-grade Diatomaceous Earth, a chalk-like substance that is supposed to be harmless to humans and pets. It works on ants and other bugs by cutting their hard exoskeletons allowing their insides to dehydrate, and then they die. I noticed a few ants crawling around in the soft, white powder, but there was no escape for them.
Finally, I determined to ease my pain by soaking in a hot bath with about six cups of Epsom salt dissolved into it. This was the first relief from the pain and burning that I had yet experienced and it felt amazing. Well, the pain didn’t totally leave, but it lessened significantly. Over the next few days I developed blisters everywhere I was stung, the pain would ebb and flow in cycles, and — in what I’m sure must be a rare case — my left arm experienced severe nerve pain and partial-paralysis for three days.
There are lots of lessons one can take from a trying experience with nature, such as this. The most important thing I have learned though, is what every good southerner has discovered since Alabamians first encountered the Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) near Mobile Bay in the 1930’s: fire ants ain’t no joke!