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Fire ants lead to fewer ticks, meat allergies but bring own risk

When it comes to ants vs. ticks, we lose

Illustration of ants and ticks imagined as fighting a battle with bows, spears, and axes with a human caught in the crossfire
Victoria Borges

A new twist has emerged in UVA’s ongoing research on the link between the lone star tick and an allergy to red meat: In Texas and other Gulf states where the invasive fire ant is common, the allergy isn’t, suggesting the fire ants are helping keep lone star ticks at bay. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily good news, because a fire ant’s bite can also cause an immediate, severe and potentially fatal allergic reaction.

It was a research team led by UVA’s Thomas Platts-Mills—a professor of asthma, allergy and immunology in the School of Medicine—that not only first identified the surprising connection between a bite from the tick and the red meat allergy, but also sought to explain why the allergic reaction occurs hours after consuming red meat or other animal products, rather than immediately, as happens with most food allergies.

More recently, the researchers interviewed allergists from around the U.S. to try to map the spread of the allergy, and found that where severe allergic reactions from fire ant bites are common, the red meat allergy is much less common. “It is a highly significant inverse relationship,” Platts-Mills says. How the ants are affecting tick populations is less clear. A recent study in Texas failed to find evidence that the ants actually prey on the ticks and suggested instead that the ants might drive out small mammals that would serve as their hosts.

Platts-Mills, who has himself been bitten by a fire ant and describes the experience as “hysterically painful,” notes that the ants, which often attack in multiple numbers, are steadily moving northward. As they do so, although they are likely to control the spread of the red meat allergy, Platts-Mills says, in its place “we’ll have something worse.”