How to Tell the Difference Between Red Ants and Fire Ants

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close-up of two red-colored ants standing on leaves

Do you have little red ants marching around your yard? Fire ants and other types of red ants might look alike at first glance, but they have many differences, including physical traits and behaviors. 

Learn the characteristics of the most common red ants in the United States so you can tell the difference between red ants and fire ants.   

How to identify fire ants

There are many species of fire ants, but the one you’re most likely to find in your yard and home in the United States is the red imported fire ant (called “RIFA” or simply “fire ant” for short). This invasive species from South America is famous for aggressive and painful stings. 

RIFA is by far the most common species, but tropical fire ants and southern fire ants are also found in many homes and yards in some parts of the country. Both of these species sting, too. 

What fire ants look like

close-up of fire ants on a ant mound
Judy Gallagher | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Fire ants vary in size and color depending on the species. Here are some identifying characteristics of red imported fire ants, the most common species in the U.S.:

  • Color: Reddish-brown to bright red with a brown abdomen (back-end)
  • Size: 1.5 to 5 millimeters long (the size of a sharp pencil point to the width of a pencil eraser); fire ant workers of the same colony will vary in size 
  • Nests: Mounds up to 2 feet high with no hole in the top; one fire ant colony may have several mounds across your property, usually in moist areas or near a food source 

Compared to other red ants: Fire ants are smaller than most other types of red ants. Fire ants also tend to be more reddish-brown in color. 

How fire ants act

Fire ants are aggressive about protecting their nest. Any time you disturb a fire ant mound, hundreds of them will pour out to attack. One way to tell if you have fire ants is to touch the mound with a rake, shovel, or long pole and see how the ants react. 

WARNING: Never touch a suspected fire ant nest with your feet, hands, or a short utensil. One fire ant stings several times, causing an intense burning sensation and white pustules on the skin.   

Fire ants usually look for food in the morning or late afternoon. Outside, they eat other insects and honeydew, a substance made by aphids. Inside, they’ll eat any meats, greasy foods, or sweet foods they can find. 

Where fire ants are found in the U.S. 

Fire ants are extremely common in the South and continue to spread to new parts of the country. As of now, stinging fire ant species are found in all or parts of:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Kansas 
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Puerto Rico
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee 
  • Texas
  • Virginia 

Our fire ant distribution data comes from the USDA’s Extension Foundation, the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI), and the USDA and University of Florida’s Citrus Pests identification database

4 types of red ants that look like fire ants

Homeowners often see red ants and immediately assume fire ants, but there are other species of red ants that are much less aggressive and less dangerous. 

Should you be worried about the red ants in your yard or home? Figure out whether you have fire ants or one of these common look-alikes by their physical appearance, behavior, and geography. 

1. Red and black carpenter ants

Judy Gallagher | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Some carpenter ants are partially the same reddish-brown color as fire ants, which causes confusion between the two. 

The most common red and black carpenter ant species in the U.S. are Florida carpenter ants and Camponotus sayi (no established common name for this species).

Here are the main differences between red and black carpenter ants and fire ants. 

Traits of red and black carpenter antsTraits of fire ants
Nest in trees and wooden structuresNest in the ground under large mounds
9.5 to 13 millimeters long (about the width of a human fingernail)1.5 to 5 millimeters long (about the width of a pencil eraser at most)
Active at nightActive in the morning or late afternoon
Less likely to attack humansReadily attack humans in huge numbers 

What red and black carpenter ants look like: 

  • Color: Reddish-brown head and thorax (middle section of the body) with a black abdomen (back-end)
  • Size: 9.5 to 13 millimeters (around the width of your fingernail)
  • Nests: Tunnel system inside trees, logs, or wooden structures

How red and black carpenter ants act: Carpenter ants don’t sting like fire ants do. Instead, they bite with their large mandibles and can break the skin, so you may find a small amount of blood around the wound. Carpenter ants won’t attack as quickly as fire ants.

Most species of carpenter ants only come out of the nest to forage at night, so you wouldn’t see them during the day. If you see ants foraging during daylight hours, they may be fire ants instead.

Where red and black carpenter ants are found in the U.S.: Florida carpenter ants, one common red and black species, live throughout the Southeast. Camponotus sayi, another red and black species, has been reported in many Western and Midwestern states. 

All or parts of these states are known to have red and black carpenter ants:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Oregon
  • South Carolina 
  • Texas
  • Utah

Our red and black carpenter ant distribution data comes from the University of Florida’s Extension Service and AntMaps.org, powered by the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST)

2. Tawny crazy ants

The tawny crazy ant or raspberry crazy ant is a similar size and color to most fire ants. Pay attention to where your ants live and how they act to figure out if they’re tawny crazy ants.

Here are some features to help you tell the difference between fire ants and tawny crazy ants. 

Traits of tawny crazy antsTraits of fire ants
Worker ants are all the same sizeWorker ants are different sizes
Same color throughout the bodyBack-end is darker than the head and middle
Move in a quick, erratic, random wayMove in straight lines along ant trails 
Don’t build ant mounds at allBuild at least one large ant mound, maybe more
Bites cause a small amount of pain that fades quickly Painful stings cause burning and itching that lasts for a while 
Millions of ants in a colonyAbout 100,000 to 500,000 ants in a colony

What tawny crazy ants look like:

  • Color: Reddish-brown (much closer to brown than red) throughout the whole body
  • Size: All worker ants are 3 millimeters long (about the width of two pennies stacked on top of each other)
  • Nests: Live under rocks, wood, debris, etc; don’t build mounds, anthills, tunnels, or other structures commonly thought of as “nests”

How tawny crazy ants act: Tawny crazy ants are capable of biting, but they don’t bite humans very often. Even when they do, their small bites cause very little pain, especially compared to fire ants. 

Tawny crazy ants are a nuisance because of the sheer number of them. Their colonies have millions of workers that move around in erratic (or “crazy,” get it?) patterns. Some homeowners dealing with tawny crazy ants have said they make it look like the ground is moving. 

Where tawny crazy ants are found in the U.S.: Tawny crazy ants are a newer invasive species from South America. Right now, they’re limited to the Southeast, but they’re still spreading. 

Tawny crazy ants have been found in all or parts of:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Texas

Our tawny crazy ant distribution data comes from EDD Maps, powered by the University of Georgia’s Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. 

3. Acrobat ants

clustering of acrobat ants on a leaf
Judy Gallagher | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Acrobat ants are some of the most common ants found in yards and homes in the United States. All acrobat ants have stingers, and some are reddish-brown in color with darker back ends, so they closely resemble fire ants. 

Here’s how you can tell the difference between acrobat ants and fire ants. 

Traits of acrobat antsTraits of fire ants
Worker ants are all the same sizeWorker ants are different sizes 
Nest in woodNest in the ground under large mounds
Stand on their heads when disturbedImmediately attack when disturbed 
Rarely sting; stings cause minimal painSting several times if disturbed; stings are very painful 

What acrobat ants look like: 

  • Color: Yellowish, reddish-brown, or dark brown depending on the species; abdomen (back-end) is usually darker than the rest of the body 
  • Size: All worker ants are 3 millimeters long (about the width of two pennies stacked on top of each other)
  • Nests: Tunnel systems inside trees, decaying wood, or wooden structures; often take over nests left behind by carpenter ants or termites

How acrobat ants act: Acrobat ants have a unique behavior you can use to identify them. When disturbed, they lift their abdomens over their heads so that it looks like they’re standing on their heads (like an acrobat). 

Acrobat ants are capable of stinging, but they almost never sting humans. Their stingers are spatula-shaped, intended for wiping venom on smaller insects rather than actually stinging. 

Where acrobat ants are found in the U.S.: Acrobat ants live almost everywhere in the contiguous United States, from coast to coast. There are even records of acrobat ants at an altitude of 7,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. 

Different species of acrobat ants may be found in all or parts of:

  • All contiguous states

Our acrobat ant distribution data comes from Texas A&M University.

4. Velvet ants

close-up of a red and black velvet ant
Bernard DUPONT | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Velvet ants are actually wasps, but the females of the species have no wings and resemble large, fuzzy ants. Their red coloring makes some homeowners think velvet ants are fire ants, but the two don’t look alike at all. 

Here’s how you can tell if the “ants” in your yard are velvet ants or fire ants. 

Traits of velvet antsTraits of fire ants
½ inch to 1 ¼ inch longAbout 0.2 inches long maximum 
Covered in fuzzNo fuzz
SolitaryLive in colonies
Try to escape when disturbedAttack when disturbed 

What velvet ants look like:

  • Color: Bright red and black with fuzz all over their backs
  • Size: ½ inch to 1 ¼ inch long (For reference, a U.S. quarter is about 1 inch wide.)
  • Nests: Lay their eggs in the abandoned nests of bumblebees and ground-nesting bees and wasps; no nest of their own

How velvet ants act: Female velvet ants live alone, so you should only see one at a time. They forage for food during the day and mainly eat plant nectar. They don’t live or behave like ants at all because they aren’t actually ants. 

Velvet ants have a stinger, and they can inflict painful stings. However, even when disturbed, they will try to escape before trying to attack. Unless you step on it, pick it up, or otherwise annoy it to the point of attacking, a velvet ant won’t sting you. 

Where velvet ants are found in the U.S.: Velvet ants are found most commonly along the East Coast, but their range extends as far west as Colorado. 

Velvet ants can be found:

  • Along the East Coast from Florida to Connecticut
  • West to Colorado

Our velvet ant distribution data comes from BugGuide.net, powered by Iowa State University. 

FAQ about red ants and fire ants

1. Are all red ants bad?

All ants have their pros and cons, and none of them are all bad. However, most types of red ants in the U.S. have significant downsides.

Fire ants are very aggressive and have painful stings.
Carpenter ants can cause serious structural damage by tunneling into the wood beams in your home if they get inside. 
Tawny crazy ants have huge colonies that can take over your whole yard.
Acrobat ants can cause damage to your home like carpenter ants can, but acrobat ants aren’t as bad because they usually don’t infest homes, and they usually take over existing tunnels instead of building their own. 
Velvet ants aren’t actually ants, so the same pros and cons don’t apply. They can sting, but they aren’t aggressive, and they’re pretty much harmless to humans if left alone. 

2. Which red ants are dangerous?

Fire ants are by far the most dangerous red ants in terms of harming humans because of their aggressive and painful stings. 

Carpenter ants, tawny crazy ants, acrobat ants, and velvet ants are all capable of biting or stinging, but they rarely harm humans as long as you don’t disturb them too much. 

3. Are fire ants dangerous? 

Yes, fire ants can be dangerous. Anyone who accidentally steps on a fire ant nest will pay for it with several painful stings, maybe hundreds of them.

Fire ant stings cause a burning sensation and skin irritation. They sometimes cause a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction, especially in small children. 

4. How do I get rid of fire anthills?

The most popular way to get rid of fire anthills is to drench the mound with boiling water. Alternatively, you can do a mound drench with chemical pesticides or natural ant poisons to destroy the nest and at least some of the ants inside.

5. What to do if you have red ants or fire ants?

Red ants, fire ants, and other types of ants can all be a nuisance in your yard. They become an even bigger problem if they get into your home. 

There are many methods for getting rid of ants in your yard and home. Some involve chemicals, while others use natural, eco-friendly substances. Here are some popular, effective things you can try if you want to handle your ant problem on your own: 

Set up ant baits around your house and yard
–Create a barrier of ant repellents around outdoor living spaces and entry points into your home
Drown the ant nests with the garden hose

If you’ve tried everything and your ant problem still persists, it may be time to call an exterminator. Pest control pros have seen it all when it comes to ant infestations, and they can pinpoint the reason your ants won’t go away and help you fix it.

One way to prevent unwanted pests in your yard is to maintain your grass and garden. If you need help maintaining your property, let Lawn Love pros take care of your property.

Main Photo Credit: MD_JERRY | Unsplash

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