If you are wondering what the difference is between red ants and fire ants, you have an ant problem! To make answering this question more difficult, fire ants are also red ants. Commonly when people refer to red ants, they are referring to ants that are red in color. There is not a specific species of ants that are red and known as red ants.
Fire Ants Vs. Red Ants
All ants belong to the order Hymenopteran, which also includes their cousins the wasp and the bee. Like wasps and bees, female ants sting. That is part of why red ants, whether that is a fire ant or a harvester ant, leaves a nasty, painful, and generally itchy mark – they sting you. Unlike honey bees, which can sting only once, a female ant can continue to sting you.
Another important aspect of ants is that like wasps and bees they are social insects. You know what happens when you step on a yellowjacket nest – the wasps swarm. Honey bees and many other species of social bees will also swarm as will ants. Disturb a fire ant colony and they declare war.
Ants belong into the family Formicidae aptly named because many produce formic acid. Some species will spray formic acid and others will inject a venom.
It is at the family level that wasps and ants separate into different types of hymenopterans. The subfamily includes many entries. Many red ants and all the 201 species of fire ants are Myrmicinae. Fire ants further divide into genus Solenopsis, and this is where the true difference between fire ants and other ants comes into the picture.
Physically, all red ants are … red ants and those include some fire ants. Not all fire ants are red. Some fire ant workers are darker, almost black. Another example of fire ants vs. red ants is found in the species of harvester ants. These can be red or black.
One important fact to understand about fire ants vs red ants is that the color fire and the color red are visual descriptions and not differentiators between species. If we say there are red ants in the backyard, those ants can be from any number of ant species.
To tell if a red ant is a fire ant entomologist would use an identification key that checks off various physical features of the ants.
- How many segments of antenna are present?
- Are their nodes that appear between the thorax and abdomen?
- Does the ant have a red/black look to it? Red ants are generally a reddish brown color whereas fire ants are red and black. The front portion of the fire ant is often red where the underside of the abdomen on fire ants is sometimes blackish and giving the fire ant a two-tone look.
- The size of the ant – fire ants range in size from 1/8 of an inch to 1/4 of an inch. Most other red ants are larger, but not all.
- Fire ant mounds are almost always about 18 inches tall.
- Another important differentiation between fire ants and red ants is the result of their aggression. Fire ants not only bite you, they inject venom which for some poor creatures feels like their skin is on fire.
Fire ants got their name from the reaction that people have to their venom. It feels like your skin is burning. One way to avoid painful encounters with dangerous insects is to look for warning colors. Brightly colored insects generally have a painful defense. Look at the bright colors on a yellowjacket – yellow and black. Bright colors are a warning.