What’s in a Name? Fire Ants or Imported Fire Ants?
Common and Scientific Names
Did you know that when you say “fire ants” you could be referring to any one of over 20 different species of fire ants? For most people, the common name fire ants is sufficient to evoke a clear image of this insect pest (especially if you’ve been stung!), but for people who study and write scientific articles about fire ants, using a generic term could invite ambiguity and misunderstanding. They need a more precise system of naming specific organisms in the animal kingdom, so they use scientific names. This is called binomial nomenclature.
Scientific names are precise and universal. A scientific name consists of distinct components: genus, species, the person who first described the species, the order in the animal kingdom and the family in the animal kingdom. A scientific name means the same thing around the world, so there is nothing can be lost in translation through different languages.
The scientific name for red important fire ants is Solenopsis invicta (Buren) (Hymenoptera:Formicidae) and the scientific name for black imported fire ants is Solenopsis richteri Forel (Hymenoptera:Formicidae) . When an ant scientist sees the scientific name, she or he knows that the ant belongs to a specific genus (Solenopsis) and species (invicta or richteri), was named by or its finding was credited to a particular person ((Buren) or Forel, respectively), is in the insect order of ants, bees and wasps (Hymenoptera), and is in a family with other insects that have similar characteristics (Formicidae).
Writing Common and Scientific Names of Fire Ants
People who write about fire ants follow certain rules when developing scientific literature.
Common names are not capitalized unless they use specific country names as part of their name. (Example: red imported fire ant, Indian meal moth)
In an article or manuscript, the complete scientific name is cited on first use so that the reader is clear about the organism being discussed.
- The first part of the scientific name is written as genus and species, both in italics (see figure). The genus name is capitalized.
- The second part of the scientific name is the last name of the scientist credited for describing the species. (Sub-species names are also included). This is written without the parentheses if this person was the original describer or with the parentheses if the species name was reclassified by a second describer. The describer is not italicized.
- The last part is Order and Family. The two are separated by a colon.
After the full proper citation on first use, subsequent references can be shortened to the first letter of the genus and the species name (but still italicized), or to a common name or acronym. (Example: S. invicta, fire ant, red imported fire ant, RIFA, IFA)
Imported Fire Ants and Native Fire Ants
Just as binomial nomenclature helps scientists communicate more effectively about fire ants, identifying some of the common names of fire ants is helpful, too.
Imported fire ants
The term imported fire ants refers to several species of fire ants in the genus Solenopsis that occur in the southeastern United States, notably Solenopsis invicta, Solenopsis richteri Forel and their hybrid. Collectively, there are about 20 known species of Solenopsis fire ants that all originally occurred in the New World (Taber 2000). These include several species native to the United States, as well as species from other locations that have been spread from their native habitats to other geographic areas. Solenopsis fire ants that now occur in the United States include:
- red imported fire ants – The fire ant species, Solenopsis invicta was described in 1972 by Buren. Prior to that time, other scientific names used for this species included Solenopsis wagneri Santschi, described in 1916 or Solenopsis saevissima var. wagneri Santschi. Although the use of S. wagneri preceded S. invicta, the latter is used today. This species was accidentally introduced to the U.S. through the port at Mobile, Alabama in about 1933 (Tschinkel 2006). Red imported fire ants are commonly called fire ants.
- black imported fire ants – Solenopsis richteri was also accidentally introduced through the port of Mobile, Alabama, but earlier, in 1918. Until 1972, this species was not recognized as a different species from the red imported fire ant. After that time, the two species, which do not occur in geographically the same location in South America, were found to interbreed and produce sexually active hybrids. Today, the black imported fire ant is limited and the hybrid predominates in its former stage.
Native fire ants
There are four species of fire ants native to North America. Native means that the species were in North America long before the activities of humans brought new organisms into the area, either deliberately or accidentally. (Source: eXtension FAQ 37240)
- tropical fire ants – Solenopsis geminata (Fabricius) has spread almost worldwide through human commerce. It usually invades open areas but can easily colonize human infrastructure and agricultural systems such as coffee and sugarcane plantations in hot climates. The greatest knowns threats of this ant are its painful sting and economic loss due to crop damage caused by its tending of honeydew-producing insects. It is known to reduce populations of native butterfly eggs and larvae. It has the potential to displace native ant populations, but is susceptible to competitive pressures from some other ant species. Source: University of Georgia Discover Life
- desert fire ants – Solenopsis aurea Wheeler and Solenopsis amblychila Wheeler – Both of these species are yellowish red to reddish yellow, whereas all other fire ants are light to dark brown. Both species are found in desert areas in western Texas.
- southern fire ant – Solenopsis xyloni McCook – Of all the native fire ants, the southern fire ant looks the most like the red imported fire ant. The southern fire ant can be identified by its brown to black color, well developed petiolar process, and no median clypeal tooth. The southern fire ant is widespread throughout the southern U.S. south of a line from North Carolina to central California (Tabor 2000).
Incorrect Common Names for Fire Ants
fireant – This is an incorrect term to reference fire ant species. The proper convention is written as two words, fire ant. In entomological literature, the accepted practice is to write names as single words when the common name of the organism refers to another taxonomic group. For instance, the caterpillar of the moth (in the Order Lepidoptera) of the “inchworm” (family Geometridae) is not a worm (annelid), so it is written as a single word. The honey bee is a true bee (Order Hymenoptera) and, thus, is written as two words. The term fire ant refers to a number of species in several genera, with most in the genus Solenopsis, but a few that belong to other genera such as the little fire ant in the genus Wasmania and the European fire ant in the genus Myrmica.
red fire ant – This term is used occasionally to describe the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta (Buren) (Hymenoptera:Formicidae). Yet, the Approved Common Names of Insects (Entomological Society of America) does not recognize “red fire ant” as a common name. However, this use seems appropriate if used in the native South American habitats where S. invicta is native and has not been imported.
Many other names are used for red imported fire ants in other parts of the world and in other languages. One Spanish name used for fire ant is hormiga brava. Some translations can be humorous, such South America’s “off with your pants.”
Taber, S.W., (2000). Fire Ants, College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
Tschinkel, W.R. (2006). The Fire Ants. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.