Our family seems to have inherited some serious allergy genes. Just this week a family member was diagnosed with a jack jumper (hopper) ant allergy and has joined the EpiPen carrying club.
We are a bit cautious about hopper ants at our house too given our family allergy history. Unfortunately we live in a “hot spot” and often see these ants in our garden, especially in Spring and Summer. In fact I spotted some over the weekend.
These venomous stinging ants can cause very serious allergic reactions (including anaphylaxis).
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What are jack jumper (hopper) ants?
Jack jumper or hopper ants are a species of Australian ants (myrmecia pilosula). They are usually about 10-15m (about 1/2 an inch) long. The body is black and the long pincers and legs are an orange brown colour.
These ants go by a few different names, including:
- hopper ants (this is what we call them);
- jack jumper ants;
- jumping jacks;
- jumper ants;
- skipper ants.
Hopper ants are named for their movement, which is often quick and jerky, and the fact that they can jump a long way (up to 10cm).
Here is a photo I took of one in our front garden a few days ago. (It’s not the clearest image as they are very quick!).
Where do they live?
These aggressive ants are native to Australia. They live in woodland and open forest areas in the south eastern states (South Australia, Victoria and especially Tasmania), but are also found in parts of New South Wales, the ACT and Western Australia.
Hopper ants tend to make their nests underground, under fallen branches or in rocky areas. In our garden they like to make their home in rock walls.
Underground nests can be hard to find. Sometimes you can tell where the entrance is because of the fine gravel around a small entrance hole and a couple of ants standing guard. But as hopper ants hunt alone and can be a long way from the nest, you may never find it.
One nest can contain hundreds or thousands of ants with a queen ant that lives for up to 10 years.1
Symptoms of jack jumper ant allergy
These ants don’t actually bite. They grip on with their pincers and then sting with their tail. For most people, a hopper ant sting will just cause a mild reaction, with localised pain, redness and swelling. (Luckily I haven’t been stung, but apparently it really hurts!) Like other stings, a treatment like Stingose will help. You might also need to take an antihistamine, especially if if there is a large swelling that lasts a few days.
Other symptoms of mild or moderate reactions include swollen lips, face or eyes or itchy hives on the skin.
A severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to hopper ants may start with mild or moderate symptoms and get worse, or it may come on very suddenly. Symptoms of a severe reaction include:
- Difficulty/noisy breathing;
- Swollen tongue;
- Swelling or tightness in the throat;
- Difficulty talking and/or a hoarse voice.
- Wheeze or persistent cough;
- Abdominal pain and vomiting;
- Loss of consciousness and/or collapse;
- Pale and floppy (in young children).2
In the case of a severe reaction, it is important to seek emergency medical care as soon as possible. If someone has a known hopper ant allergy, locate and follow their anaphylaxis management plan and use their EpiPen or other autoinjector as directed.
How to avoid hopper ant stings
Hopper ants are difficult to avoid if you like being outdoors in affected areas. I even know someone who is moving house because of a severe hopper ant allergy. That is probably the most extreme method of avoiding stings!
If you like to garden, go bush walking or work outdoors in areas where hopper ants are prevalent, there are some practical steps you can take. It is a good idea to wear long sleeved shirts, long pants and closed in shoes. For extra protection wear boots and tuck your pants in to close off any gaps. When gardening, make sure you wear gloves. Keep an eye out for ants and watch where you stand (or sit!).
Protective clothing can help, but not eliminate risk altogether. If you know you have an allergy to hopper ants you should make sure that you carry your EpiPens and anaphylaxis plan with you and always have a way of contacting someone in an emergency (mobile phone or other communication in remote areas).
Finally, nests on your property (if you can find them) can also be chemically treated with an appropriate insecticide powder. You may want to engage a pest control expert to do this.
There is an effective treatment for hopper ant allergy. Immunotherapy (“allergy shots”) is available in states where hopper ants are commonly found. This desensitisation treatment involves regular injections of ant venom, starting with a very small amount and gradually increasing it. This changes how the immune system reacts to hopper ant stings in the future.
Immunotherapy treatment takes a long time (a number of years) and can be expensive. However it is certainly worth discussing with your allergy specialist if you are diagnosed with a serious hopper ant allergy. Clinics offering immunotherapy operate from major hospitals in states where hopper ants are active. In mid 2020 a second immunotherapy clinic opened in Mount Barker in the Adelaide Hills, a hopper ant hot spot. You can read more about immunotherapy (which I am doing for other types of allergens) in our post Important questions to ask about starting allergy shots (immunotherapy).
References and more information
If you have been diagnosed with a hopper ant allergy and have been prescribed an EpiPen, have a read of our guide: Making friends with your EpiPen.
You should also consider wearing an allergy medical alert ID in case of emergency: see Our pick of the latest Allergy Medical Alert IDs.
Find out more about jack jumper ants and allergic reactions to them from these helpful resources we’ve referred to in our post:
- 1 Biosecurity Fact Sheet: Jack Jumper Ant, Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries Parks Water and Environment, 2010
- 2 Jack Jumper Ant Allergy, Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, October 2019
- Native Ants of the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Region Identification Chart, Government of South Australia, Natural Resources Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges, 2016