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).
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.
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)
Just as binomial nomenclature helps scientists communicate more effectively about fire ants, identifying some of the common names of fire ants is helpful, too.
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:
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)
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.