Saturday, April 9, 2011

Fire Ant Patrol

I've been on fire ant patrol this week. We have to be vigilant to control the mounds and especially careful to keep from being bitten by fire ants. Moving into the edge of a fire ant mound to get a better photo may mean one's shoes and legs are covered in stinging insects in seconds. I've almost come out of my jeans out by the highway on several occasions. The stings are not only fiery painful but result in an itching festered lesion.

Imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta and Solenopsis richteri) are invasive species that cause $6 billion in annual losses in the United States ( See Area Wide Fire Ant Suppression). Imported fire ants inflict painful stings and can kill human beings. There are large social and medical costs associated with this pest. The large mounds they build dot the landscape (average of 60 mounds per acre from Louisiana eastward, and 300 mounds per acre in Texas). The mounds are unsightly and can damage mowers and combines. Fire ants invade electrical equipment, causing short circuits and equipment failures. They cause ongoing expense to turfgrass managers. Currently, a USDA APHIS quarantine covers 320,000,000 acres in 14 U.S. states or territories. -- Alabama Extension Service

Fire ants are found in at least 14 of the lower 48 states, California and Puerto Rico. I hope you have none.

Many aspects of imported fire ants can be beneficial, but they can cause many problems. In urban areas, imported fire ants cause problems because of their unsightly nests or mounds often found in open, sunny areas. The ants have an affinity for electrical equipment and can cause failures when they interfere with switching mechanisms, chew on insulation, and fill utility boxes with soil for nesting. --Alabama Extension Service

My friend Burt had to have her heat pump replaced when fire ants nested in the condenser.

In agriculture, their tall, hardened mounds can interfere with field working machinery. Although fire ants eat certain insects, they protect and encourage population growth among sucking insects such as aphids, scales, mealybugs, and others that produce the sugary liquid called honeydew. The ants feed on the honeydew rather than eat the insects that produce it. Thus, they can increase the need for insecticide use for these pests in certain crops such as cotton and ornamental crop nurseries. -- Alabama Extension Service

Fire ants love my garden and 'farm' aphids and other insects for their purposes, ruining ornamentals like gardenias. These gardenias are from my garden, 2009. I look forward to more blossoms in June.

There is extensive information on controlling fire ants on the Alabama Extension site. Some other states have similar information. The most important thing that I took from this site was that the best way to insure that one is using approved baits is to buy from reputable dealers who will not be selling chemicals not licensed in the state.
Alabama Extension Service Fire Ant Control Web Site

Effective organic controls for imported fire ants that work and are available are few. Folk tales abound, as do fire ants. I've doused them with boiling water. I've taken shovelfuls of soil from one mound and transferred to another to let 'em duke it out. I've sprinkled the mounds with grits in hopes swollen corn bits would do whatever it was supposed to do. I've let the armadillo population increase in hopes they would destroy entire mounds instead of just stirring in them and eating a few. I've poured various botanicals over the mounds. Mostly the ants just pack up and move a few feet away.

Spinosad is considered organic because it is produced from a bacterial fermentation process that produces a toxin, which extracted and put into a bait. Spinosad baits work well in small areas or as mound treatments, achieving control in 2 to 4 weeks. Spinosad costs about $8 to $10 per pound.

Releases of Thelohania solenopsae, a disease-causing protozoan that attacks the imported fire ant and came along with the ant when it came into the US, were made in 10 southern states.  Currently there are no commercial products containing Thelohania available. There are questions concerning Thelohania getting into coastal waters and affecting crayfish.

Fire ant bait is one of the few exceptions I make to having a pesticide-free garden.


  1. Oh my those fire ants. When I lived in the wiregrass area they nearly made me give up gardening. In fact, I used silk flowers in window boxes -shhh-they looked real for a while:) The fire ants loved the soil in the boxes. I keep telling my husband that if they make it here we are heading north. I really have to admire the pluck of southern gardeners who deal with not only them but the tremendous heat and humidity.

  2. Okay, that's it. I'm staying up north. I'd rather shovel snow that jump out of my jeans out by the highway. That made me smile.


  3. Toss a coin, kill aphids, stay, bite me, eradicate. Hum... I dealt with then in Costa Rica, definitely must go.

  4. Thank goodness, that is a pest we don't have to deal with here in southwest Missouri! I didn't realize how bad they were.

    Good luck with whatever control you use.

  5. Lovely flowers! Ours are still in pots, bloomed and fallen off. We can't decide where to plant them. :)

    To answer the question you left in my comments; yes, I have found it very difficult to pick and favor other blogs on blotanical, but I've not stopped visiting and reading.

  6. Nell Jean, I'm sending a big congratulations to you in Georgia. You've won the year end contest at Canoe Corner! Please let me know your mailing address and I'll send the prize on it's way (canoecorner AT hotmail). Have a great weekend. Marguerite

  7. Spring is the worst time of year for fire ants here. They may be beneficial to some extent, but I cannot stand them in my garden. I've tried just about everything you've mentioned, making honest and repeated attempts to control them naturally without chemicals. I gave that up this spring. There are some poisons that have a short half-life in the soil, so I have been using those. I figure if I can get them under control before all of the butterflies start showing up, I'll stop using the chemicals and hopefully be alright the rest of the season. I do not venture outside without shoes, socks and long pants anymore because of these pests! It's not so much the initial stings, but the days following when I have these little pus-filled sores that itch to high heaven! Ugh!

  8. I agree with you on using pesticide for those nasty critters. Thanks for the information on the latest treatments.

  9. When I lived in SC we were always on the look out for fire ants. I was always worried my kids, who were very little at the time, would get bitten. Nsty little buggers!
    Thanks a million for popping over to my blog and sharing your info on poppies. I grew up in CA and really miss seeing them as part of the landscape. The climates of CA and VA are so different it never occured to me to try to grow them. I've never seen them around here. So I'm off to get a seed packet, will sow them in a pot instead of my heavy clay soil, and am crossing my fingers that I'll have a pot of California sunshine on my patio this summer. I am very grateful!! :o)

  10. We worked hard in years past to get rid of fire ants and don't have as big a problem now. My youngest son, when he was very young, would step in fire ant hills and watch them crawl up his legs. Then he would start screaming!

  11. I learned all about fire ants last year when they took over my garden. I'd never seen a fire ant before and learned quickly how terrible they can be. I've found Diatamaceous Earth to be effective, but my store is out of it right now so I tried something called Organocide, which is just concentrated sesame oil. I put some of that in my tomato patch when I saw a few fire ants last week and that seemed to run them off, but then I saw a few more today. The battle begins....:)

  12. Fire ants are frightening. We have mostly eradicated them in our state in Aus but they are still a danger...I would make an exception and use pesticides to destroy fire ants as well...

  13. Back to Durantas..I find odd that people here prune then as hedges, never having a chance to enjoy the flowers and its fragance and the hanging beauty of the berries...

    Regarding gardenias yours look impressive. My Augusta is getting ready to bloom for the first time.

    Nice blog....

  14. I call them piss ants! My daughter said, "Is it because they piss you off?" I guess maybe that is why. We have them and my husband is constantly shaking ant bait on their mounds.

  15. We use the product "Over and Out" It works well but is very expensive. We treat the entire grassy area of our yard yearly and it seems to keep them at bay. I dont like using chemicals but must for these horrible biting critters...


I look forward to comments and questions and lively discussion of gardening and related ideas.

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