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Fire ant colonies spotted floating on Harvey floodwaters

HOUSTON — As if the thousands of residents facing flooding in Harvey’s wake don’t already have enough to worry about, floating colonies of thousands of stinging fire ants have been spotted throughout the area.

While shocking (but fake) posts about things like sharks swimming on highways often emerge on social media during extreme weather events, many recent reports of tiny islands of fire ants are real. Reporter Mike Hixenbaugh of the Houston Chronicle posted a video of one such colony on Sunday.

“Floodwaters will not drown fire ants,” Paul R. Nester, a specialist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, explains in an official advisory. Instead of drowning, they emerge from the soil and hold on to one another, forming a living mass that floats on top of the water.

“Floating fire ant colonies can look like ribbons, streamers, mats, rafts, or an actual ‘ball’ of ants floating on the water,” Nester said.

The floating colonies – which can hold as many as 100,000 ants – are not uncommon, and have been spotted during floods in other areas where fire ants live. Houstonia magazine reports fire ants remain a real concern in the Houston area, and CBS National Correspondent Omar Villafranca tweeted another picture of fire ants formed into a “protective island” Sunday.

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.

And if that dry object happens to be an unsuspecting human, the results can be painful: fire ants will bite and sting. People in boats also need to watch where they put their oars into the water because ants will climb up them and try to hitch a ride to dry land.

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.