Buggin out: Controlling stubborn fire ants is tricky business

Jun. 03, 2013 @ 10:18 AM

We’ve all done it, or at least thought about it.
Take a stick, jam it down a fire ant mound, and let the chaos ensue.
The problem? These ants fight back.
“Most ants are helpful. Not every ant is going to sting you, but these are the bad guys,” said Eleanor Spicer Rice, a science editor who wrote “Dr. Eleanor’s Common Book of Ants.” She received her doctorate from N.C. State University in entomology.
Late spring is the time of year when fire ant mounds crop up everywhere.
“It would not surprise me if it was worse than last year,” said Troy Coggins of the Davidson County Cooperative Extension office. “We saw a relatively mild winter.”
Fire ants are continuously spreading north and were common in the southern part of Guilford County by 2010, according to the Department of Entomology with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Services. The government has quarantined much of the state by regulating several agricultural industries to minimize transportation of fire ants.
If you discover a mound in your yard, there are steps you can take to keep them at bay.
To get rid of fire ants, the most effective method is to buy pesticide, Spicer Rice said. This can be found at most outdoors supply stores.
If you don’t want to use chemicals, though, Spicer Rice said the best home remedy is to pour boiling, soapy water on the mound. The soap washes off a protective layer so the heat can work its magic. The water must be boiling because, if it’s not hot enough, it won’t kill them.
“Fire ants have this really cool behavior where they link their bodies together and form a living raft,” Spicer Rice said. “They can survive days for that way.”
The biggest reason fire ants are hard to get rid of, Spicer Rice said, is that they move around a lot.
“If neighbors have fire ants and you get rid of yours, they could still move over,” she said.
This tendency is the very thing that makes these ants somewhat useful to farmers, Spicer Rice said.
“Think of all that dirt they’ve moved,” she said. “It aerates the soil.”
On the rare occasion that fire ants are indoors, Spicer Rice recommends seeking out their entrance, blocking it up and eliminating the source of whatever’s drawing them in, such as discarded food.
An extremely small percentage of people have a severe allergic reaction to fire ants called anaphylaxis. Once stung, they will be unable to breathe and need to go to the hospital or it could become deadly. Unless you have this reaction, though, fire ants are nothing to worry about for the long term.
“It’s more aggravating than a mosquito bite, but it’s not gonna be the end of your world,” Spicer Rice said. She recommends itch relief for nastier stings.
Most types of ants are harmless — all but two or three of the 250 found in North Carolina, Spicer Rice said. North Carolina’s stinging ants include the red imported fire ant and the Asian needle ant, to which two to four times more people are allergic than the honey bee.
For more information, download Dr. Spicer Rice’s book for free.

Fire ant myths and management

Don’t use:
• Grits
• Gasoline

Instead try:
• Pesticide
• Boiling, soapy water


Photography by Alex Wild