Southwest Florida woman dies after reaction to fire ant bites

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You see the dirt mounds everywhere, but did you know the insects that call them home are dangerous? One Southwest Florida woman knows firsthand after losing her best friend last month. Now, she’s on a mission to make sure people are educated so another tragedy can be avoided.

“It was just such a shock and such a sad thing,” said Gail Ruperd, whose best friend died after being bitten by fire ants.

“One of my favorite memories of her is her singing. I mean, almost every time you said something, she could think of a song and would start singing.”

But over a period of four days, she was silenced.

“This was just such a shocking, horrible thing that nobody expected.”

It started with a trip to Myakka River State Park in mid-April.

“While they were there, she said, ‘Oh, I’m getting bit up by red ants’, not thinking anything of it,” Ruperd said.

“They get in the car to leave, and she starts to have a reaction – a pretty severe anaphylactic reaction.”

Three days later, the 66-year-old was gone.

“I rushed to the hospital, of course, and stayed with them for a very long time. But by that time, they got her breathing, but she was on life support. And there wasn’t a lot of hope brain-wise.

Dr. Roberto Pereira, a research scientist in the Urban Entomology Laboratory at the University of Florida, said cases of people dying from fire ant bites are rare and sometimes avoidable.

“There are some people that are very sensitive to fire ants, and if they get stung by fire ants, even just one stinging incident can cause the person to go into shock.”

But the “normal person can withstand several stings,” he said.

“With the proper care and proper medication, it doesn’t result in death very often at all.”

Ruperd said her friend was allergic to bees, but she didn’t have an EpiPen at the time of the fire ant attack. “And that I think is the hardest thing,” she said.

“We don’t know if it would have made a difference if she’d had an EpiPen. We’re never going to know that. But if one person went out and got an EpiPen from hearing this story, that would be helpful.”

To find out if you are allergic to fire ant bites, check with your allergist.
And it’s not just humans who suffer from fire ant bites.

“When we deal with cattle raising, those animals are subject to the fire ant bites just as we are,” Pereira said.“It’s very common for cattle that are born out in the field that the fire ants may attack their eyes and actually cause the little calves to be blind.”

Fire ants prefer sunny, open areas like lawns and pastures to build their nests. Because they aren’t native to North America, there aren’t a lot of natural controls for them, but you can treat your lawn with chemicals to get rid of them.

“Because the ant is not from here, it’s from South America, we haven’t been able to really control this ant just with biological control, so we have to supplement that with chemical control and using pesticides,” Pereira said. “There are some products that combine these two active ingredients so that you’re killing ants, but at the same time you’re weakening the whole colony by making the queen or queens less productive.”

He adds the USDA also spent time working to eradicate fire ants on a larger scale.

“One was we introduced some biological controls. So these are other living organisms that attack the fire ants,” Pereira said. “This little, tiny fly hovers over an ant and eventually comes down to it and it bumps right near the neck of them. And in that act, an egg is injected inside the head. From that egg, a little larva comes out.”

The USDA also tried using a protozoan very common in Florida to make the ants sick.

“This protozoan causes the queen to not be very productive in terms of number of eggs, eventually that colony will die.”

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