Friend or Foe: Fire Ants

Friend or Foe: Fire Ants

My Dad and one of his younger sisters, my Tia Betty, are about 4 years apart. She always wanted to be where he was—as a little sister does. One day, when my Dad was about 8 years old and my Tia Betty was about 4 years old, he decided he would convince her to give him some space by playing what he thought would be a small prank.

They were playing around an irrigation ditch where there was also a mound of dirt. Just your average child’s playground.

Manny (my Dad), Patsy, & Betty, circa 1966

My Dad decided that they would play a follow-the-leader type game, and he convinced my Tia Betty to stand practically on top of this mound of dirt. First, he had her clap. Easy game and my Tia Betty was just happy to be included. Next, he told her to stomp. 

What my Dad left out of his explanation of this game was that this mound of dirt also was home to a fire ant colony. So, when my Tia Betty started to stomp, she disturbed the now-very-angry fire ants. They stormed out of their ant colony and did not hold back their anger at her. 

By the time my Tia Betty realized what was happening, she was already covered in fire ants biting every surface of her skin. Trapped in her clothes. Head to toe. Fire ants. Biting. 

Around this same time my Dad realized just exactly what he had caused. But it was too late. He didn’t mean for her to be covered in fire ants. He thought just a few would come out to scare her. He didn’t anticipate that the entire ant colony would be participating in his prank.

My Abuela Dora came out when she heard my Tia Betty’s screams of pain. Thinking quickly, she grabbed her daughter and threw her in the shower to get all the ants off and soothe her bites. Needless to say, my Dad got in a lot of trouble. So much trouble, he didn’t even remember this story until years later. 

Fire ants show up more than once in my family’s history though. While my dad used fire ants to try to get rid of a little sister, his Abuelo Nicholas used them to survive. 

Nicholas (left) & friend

Abuelo Nicholas was originally born in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1898. When he was 17, he made the journey to El Paso, Texas. He hitchhiked and he walked, which meant that part of this journey required him to walk through the desert. My great Tia told my dad that these trips could be extremely dangerous for many reasons, one reason being the coyotes. They’d be hard to avoid if you were traveling across the desert at night without a place to stay and they could certainly attack. But Abuelo Nicholas was never attacked. Instead of using fire ants to get rid of a little sister, Abuelo Nicholas befriended the fire ants. Well, he at least had an understanding with them. 

Coyotes won’t go near fire ant colonies. Apparently, Abuelo Nicholas knew this too. So at night, Abuelo Nicholas would gently lay on or very close to a fire ant colony. They wouldn’t bother him at night–at least that’s how the story goes. Then, in the morning, Abuelo Nicholas would know to wake up when a few of those fire ants would bite him awake. They could only have an understanding with each other until morning. 

Throughout my family’s history, something as small as fire ants have continued to shape us. Whether by allowing my great Abuelo Nicholas to sleep on his journey to Texas or by teaching my Dad to be a little nicer to his sister, they have found a way to be in our story.

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