The 27-year-old mother in the small hamlet in Dambulla called Bulanwala had decided to sleep on the floor to escape the unbearable March heat, but her slumber was short-lived. She was awakened by a painful bite early in the morning. She alerted her husband fearing it was a snake, but the search only resulted in finding a kadiya on the mat.
After a few minutes, she started itching and developed welts all over her body. It got so bad she had to be taken to Dambulla hospital. Recognizing that her condition was getting worse, the patient was immediately transferred to Kurunegala hospital but passed away in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).
|Latest ant-allergy victim
The latest victim of ant bite to be admitted to the Kurunegala hospital last Monday, May 24 was a 19-year-old girl from a nearby village Ambanpola, who was later transferred to the ICU as her conditions worsened. She is now recovering. Four other patients from the area too are being treated.
“The patient’s husband insisted that it was an ant known as dala kadiya that had bitten his wife. Since it was uncertain and needed to be investigated, we decided to get the assistance of ant experts of the country,” said Dr.Asoka Rathnathilake, Consultant Physician of the Kurunegala hospital. Dr. Rathnathilake contacted Prof. Sriyani Dias of the Kelaniya University who sent Research Assistant Vajira Peiris and a team to search the area for any possible ants that can be deadly.
But it wasn’t usually a deadly ant that had stung the victim - the team found a dala kadiya. The entrance of the house. This ant has a pair of narrow elongated mandibles giving its Sinhala name dala kadiya and the species is scientifically identified as Odontomachus simillimus. It is not a rare species of ant and villagers are bitten by them since they often build underground colonies near houses.
“According to the information given by the woman’s husband, the ant that had bitten his wife was a Queen of Odontomachus simillimus that is bigger than a normal worker ant,” explained Prof. Dias. The queen is bigger in size and the bite can be more powerful. The queen can grow upto about 12 – 15mm, bigger than the normal worker ants who are only about 9 mm.
An ant colony consists mostly of sterile wingless females forming castes of "workers" or "soldiers". Nearly all ant colonies have some fertile males called "drones" and one or more fertile females called "queens". As a strategy to spread its species, the new queens of a colony who get wings fly away in search of new locations to set up a new colony. Perhaps, the ant that had stung the woman may also be such a queen on the move, suggest ant experts.
Dr. Rathnathilake also confirmed that two other patients were treated for ant bites in recent months. Both of them were from the Kurunegala area and one was in the ICU for a few days. The ant experts believe that those were not the same variety that had stung the woman from Dambulla. Like bees, the ants use a sting located in their abdomen.
But can ant stings be fatal? Experts say different people respond to insect stings differently and some can develop allergies that can lead to severe conditions. “It is like only some people get allergies reactions after eating pineapple or prawns.”
The age and weakness of the body due to other illnesses can be factors aggravating a normal allergy to a fatal situation. “Otherwise, Sri Lankan ants are usually not the kind that cause fatalities and they neither chase to attack aggressively when provoked like the bees or wasps,” insists Prof. Dias.
She also points out though these tiny creatures are usually considered a nuisance, ants are also helpful to keep the environmental balance. Kadiyas especially are predators and naturally control harmful pests like termites. Ants that serve as scavengers in our environment also assist in keeping a clean environment whereas some species are seed dispersers throughout the forests. Some ant species could also be considered as biological indicators of natural ecosystems. So it is not wise to destroy all the ant colonies around your houses, advises Prof.Dias.
There are 181 ant species found in Sri Lanka, but the number could be higher, say the experts. Two species are endemic, where one is still to be published scientifically. The Relict Ant found only in a few areas like Gilimale/Pompakale is critically endangered.
The Kelaniya University under the guidance of Prof. Dias has been researching ants since 2000 and welcomes more information from the public. Dr. Dias can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you allergic?
The allergic reaction to an insect sting varies from person to person. Symptoms can include itching, hives, flushing of the skin, tingling or itching inside the mouth, and nausea or vomiting.
The most serious allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis, which can be fatal. Difficulty in breathing, swallowing, hoarseness, swelling of the tongue, dizziness, and fainting are signs of a severe allergic reaction. These types of reactions usually occur within minutes of the sting but have been known to be delayed for up to 24 hours. Prompt treatment is essential, and emergency help is often needed.
But the first step in management of insect sting allergies is prevention. Try to avoid areas where there is an increased risk of stings, such as around insect nests and garbage cans. Do not walk barefoot outdoors.
If you are bitten by an ant and get symptoms of itching and hives or welts on the skin other than around the bite, seek medical attention at once.