What Are Fire Ants?

Fire ants are imported species that resist chemical pesticides, cause billions of dollars of property damage each year and even kill people and animals.

Fire ants. These red ants look ordinary enough, but they have killed about sixty people in the United States since they were inadvertently imported to the Port of Mobile from Argentina in the 1930s. They routinely kill small wildlife, and sometimes even colts and calves.

Most people develop a swollen, white cyst at the site of a fire ant bite. It will itch and blister, then, like a pimple may burst and disappear in a week or so. In an allergic individual one bite can be quite serious and potentially fatal. However, one rarely gets just one fire ant bite. These insects are able to swarm their victim, then signal each other to bite simultaneously. It's quite common not to know they are on you until you're being bitten in several to dozens of places at once.

Over 260 million acres in the United States are infested with these opportunistic ants as they drive out, or kill, native ant species. Crop producers lose upwards of two billion dollars due to fire ant damage each year. Quarantines are placed on infected crops preventing their sale or export to uninfested countries. Ants eat and destroy a wide variety of fruit and vegetable crops.

Fire ant mounds can be enormous. It used to be that each nest had but one queen, buried up to 25 feet underground and supported by a complex network of other ants performing an amazing array of tasks. Now mounds are often found with multiple queens, presumably as a reaction to chemical pesticides. Those queens willing to share have more successful colonies since it is harder to kill multiple queens than just one, and therefore their genes are passed along to their offspring. Worker ants live only a few months, but the queens live two years, producing about a thousand eggs a day.

Elimination of fire ants is very difficult. Ants in a given area can be killed, but reinfestation is probable since there is no way to prevent ants from moving in from surrounding areas. Disturbing the mounds with pesticides at the surface, or even mowing simply causes the mound to move, or divide if there are multiple ants.

These ants like electrical equipment and often build mounds inside air conditioners, transformers and walls. They eat through electrical insulation and create fire hazards.

Organic methods may affect fire ant mounds to some degree. Unfortunately, the more immediately effective chemical treatments in the long run appear to encourage fire ant tenacity and resistance to such treatments.

Because they prefer turf areas such as neighborhood lawns, it is helpful to cover as much of your property as possible with different kinds of plantings to make it less attractive to them. Caulk windows and doors, and seal foundation cracks with silicone. Check air conditioners and other equipment regularly and remove invading ants.

Boiling water, boiling water containing dish liquid, and boiling water that first had citrus peels blended into it may be effective in getting a mound to move away from an area where they can cause damage to children or pets. Also, mixing soil from two different mounds may upset the ants enough to make them move their queens elsewhere.

Chemical treatments are readily available in areas where infestations are known to be present. Use these precisely as directed and try to select the products that are least poisonous to the environment. Often the cure is worse than the ailment.

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