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By: Jackie Carroll
Between medical costs, property damage, and the cost of insecticides to treat for fire ants, these tiny insects cost Americans more than 6 billion dollars each year. Find out how to control fire ants in this article.
If it weren’t for their dangerous and destructive side, you could almost think of fire ants as beneficial insects. After all, they can move and loosen more earth than earthworms, and they help keep several species of pest insects under control. But it would be hard to convince most people that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. As if the painful bites weren’t enough, they also chew on electrical wires and build nests in inappropriate places where they damage homes and other structures.
Fire ant control in gardens and lawns doesn’t have to involve dangerous chemicals. There are a couple of organic insecticides that are as effective the toxic options. In addition, there are other methods that, while not considered organic, pose a minimal risk to humans, animals and the environment.
A number of home remedies are promoted as fire ant pesticides, but most don’t work. Pouring grits, club soda or molasses on a fire ant mound has no effect. Treating a mound with gasoline or ammonia may work, but it is dangerous. These chemicals contaminate the soil and ground water, and it takes years to get rid of the contamination. Drenching the soil with two to three gallons of boiling water is effective about 60 percent of the time. Of course, boiling water also kills plants in the immediate area.
Organic fire ant pesticide includes d-limonene, which is made from citrus oil, and spinosad, which is produced by a soil microbe. Spinosad remains active for a few days, and d-limonene lasts only a day. These insecticides work best when used along with a bait.
Baits are insecticides dissolved in food that ants like to eat. Before you spread the bait, test to see if the ants are foraging. Place a small pile of bait near a hill and wait to see if the ants carry it off. If you don’t see evidence that the fire ant pests are interested within an hour, wait a few days and try again.
Spread the bait over the entire lawn and garden. After the amount of time indicated on the product label, treat remaining hills with one of the organic fire ant pesticides. You can also use the pesticides to treat new hills that form after you spread the bait.
If the infestation is severe, it is probably best to call in a professional.
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When it comes to pests, few can be more irritating than red fire ants. Fire ants are very aggressive in their behavior and aren’t afraid to sting those that come close to their dwellings. These dwellings, of course, can be located directly in your backyard.
Dealing with a fire ant issue can be important, especially if you have children or pets. Many homeowners find themselves stumped as to how to address this common issue.
Does that sound like you as well? Read on, and we’ll walk you through everything you should know about fire ant control.
Fire ant mounds only hint at what's below. Vast underground nests include tunnels that reach 25 feet from mounds, and fast, frequent expansions are standard calls from fire ant playbooks. Fire ants don't confine themselves to lawns they invade gardens, compost piles, outbuildings and homes. These aggressive pests can sting repeatedly, and attack anything and anyone who disrupts their feeding or their mounds.
Queens rule in fire ant colonies. The Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project reports that queen fire ants can live many years and lay up to 800 eggs per day. That's an additional 11,000 to 17,000 mature fire ants every two to three weeks! Worker ants only live about five weeks, but given the queens' reproductive abilities, there's always a replacement workforce. Average colonies house 100,000 to 500,000 fire ants, and some have multiple queens. Left unchecked, populations can soar to 40 million ants per acre — guaranteed to bench your outdoor plans. 2
It's a rule here in the South. Following a heavy rain on Sunday, on Monday your yard becomes a death zone dotted with little red clay volcanoes -- fire ant mounds teeming with satanic assassins just itching to sting you and any other animal they can find. I truly believe this is why Karen Carpenter sang, "Rainy days and Mondays always get me down."
The pustule-causing stings are more than an annoyance. People with allergies can die from anaphylactic shock after a single sting. Small children stung dozens of times have died. Fire ants also take a tremendous toll on livestock and other wildlife, especially ground-nesting birds. So we are justified in wanting to kill them before they kill us. The question is how?
I have said it before and I will say it again. As soon as somebody comes up with an organic or natural fire ant product that's EFFECTIVE, I will use and recommend it. To be effective, the control must kill the queen. If it kills 99% of the fire ants but the queen survives, the mound will just come back. So let's review some of the controls that don't work.
Fire Ant Remedies That Just Don't Work For The Average Yard
Grits. I know you've heard about this one. Sprinkle grits on the mound. Fire ants will eat them and the moisture inside their bodies will cause the grits to expand and the ants to explode. Nice thought and I've tried it. No explosions. No tiny mushroom clouds. No effect.
Diatomaceous earth. This white, powdery stuff made from the shells of microscopic sea creatures slices open the exoskeletons of insects like ants, causing them to die of dehydration. So it kills any ant it touches. Trouble is, it's highly unlikely to reach the queen. And if it gets wet, it washes into the soil and you have to put more down. If you're not careful, you could breathe in the powder and cause more harm to yourself than the ants.
Boiling water. You know why you like this one. You want to boil those little suckers alive and hear their tiny screams! But you probably won't boil the queen, so the surviving ants will just make a new mound for her a few feet over. In the meantime, you'll have scalded yourself and your scream won't be tiny.
Orange peels. Citrus oil does repel ants and other insects. Therefore, they avoid it. If you dump orange peels on the mound, the ants will simply move the mound.
Club soda. Oh, this is genius! Your pour a liter bottle of club soda on the mound. The carbon dioxide in the soda replaces the oxygen in the mound and the ants suffocate. If this is the route you wanna go, I suggest you back up your trailer to the front of Wal-Mart each week and haul out every case of club soda it has. You're gonna need 'em, because the ants will be back -- asking for your Scotch.
Diesel fuel or gasoline. Really? You're gonna kill fire ants by dumping diesel on the mound and killing the grass too? I can hear Jeff Foxworthy now: "If you dump diesel fuel on a fire ant mound, YOU may be a redneck!" No. you ARE a redneck.
Fire Ant Remedies That Do Work For The Average Yard
Unfortunately, none of the controls that are effective are natural or organic. They involve synthetic insecticides. But when used as directed, they're safe and they WORK.
Mound Treatments. Mound treatments include dusts like acephate (Orthene) and baits like Amdro. Acephate kills any ant it touches, so the hope is the workers will get some on the queen. Amdro is a slow-acting stomach poison bound to corn grits mixed with soybean oil. The worker eats it, but before he dies, feeds it to the queen and she dies too. The drawback with mound treatments is that they don't stop other fire ants from making more mounds, so you have to keep treating all summer. And when Amdro bait gets wet, it quickly spoils and ants won't eat it.
Season-long entire lawn treatments. This is what Grumpy recommends. Entire lawn treatments are granules of long-lasting insecticide that you apply to the lawn with a fertilizer spreader and water in. Ortho Fire Ant Killer, containing bifenthrin, works well for me. I put it down the first week of April and have zero fire ant mounds for the next six months. GardenTech Over 'n' Out is a similar product. (And in case you're wondering -- no, I don't work for Ortho or GardenTech and I bought the bag. Grumpy don't shill for nobody.)
One final thought -- some truly ignorant county commissioners in Montgomery County, Maryland just banned all non-organic lawn pesticides on the basis that they might cause cancer in children, even though they had no evidence or data to support this. Montgomery County has no fire ants. Once it does, the commission will change its mind.
Fire ants are like humans they eat many different foods. Gardeners may see ants crawling on leaves, flowers and fruits in the garden.
“Fire ants search for fats, proteins and sugars. They come to plants to feed on nectar in flowers and extrafloral nectaries,” Graham said. “They also protect aphids on plants because the fire ants feed on the aphid excrement, honeydew. Fire ants also feed on seeds and on other insects.”
Follow the directions on the label for vegetable gardens and fire ant control. Be sure to use control products with vegetables on the label when trying to control fire ants in the vegetable garden. By broadcasting a fire ant bait around—not in—the garden, homeowners can control most fire ant colonies in small gardens. This is helpful since baits labeled for fire ants in vegetable gardens are difficult to find. There are more fire ant baits that are legal to use in home lawns and other grassy areas than there are for use in vegetable gardens.
Fire ants thrive in Mississippi pastures and hayfields because these habitats are similar to the pampas in their native lands of Brazil and Argentina. It is no fun to haul hay bales from a fire ant-infested field, and the mounds can interfere with mowing and even damage equipment.
Fire ant-infested hay cannot be shipped to fire ant-free areas. Permanent pastures can have fire ant densities ranging from 50 to more than 200 mounds per acre. At these densities, fire ant mounds interfere with management operations, and the ants sting animals and interfere with grazing. Around barns and in barnyards, fire ants cause problems by getting into feed and stinging animals and people working in the area.
Occasionally, fire ants are even blamed for deaths of newborn calves and foals, but this is not as common as you might think. Finding a dead calf with fire ants crawling out of its mouth and nose does not necessarily mean fire ants killed the animal. Healthy newborns that are able to quickly gain their feet are at little risk, but fire ants will quickly begin foraging on animals that are stillborn or die shortly after birth. However, fire ants can contribute to the death of distressed, immobile newborns, as well as older animals that are sick or injured.
You can control fire ants in pastures and hayfields by using granular fire ant baits, but you have to realize baits work slowly and need to be applied preventively. The cost ranges from $8 to $45 per acre, depending on the application rate and how many times you treat each season. If your goal is just to reduce the number of fire ant mounds in a permanent pasture, one treatment may be enough but if you want to eliminate and prevent fire ant mounds around a horse barn and paddocks, you will need to treat more than once per year.
To treat a pasture or hayfield for fire ants, you need two things: a bait that is labeled for use around grazing animals and a spreader that will apply the bait properly.
Not all fire ant baits are labeled for pastures and hayfields some baits contain active ingredients that are not approved for use around grazing animals. Check the label—before you buy—to be sure the product is labeled for your intended use.
Currently, three active ingredients are labeled for use as fire ant baits in pastures or hayfields: methoprene, pyriproxyfen, and hydramethylnon. These products are sold through farm supply stores in small quantities (one to five pounds) and in 25-pound bags, but you may have to special order the larger quantities.
Although these baits can be applied in pastures with grazing animals present, there may be a short waiting period before you can cut the hay. Be sure to read and follow the label directions.
Table 1. Fire ant baits for pastures, hayfields, and barnyards.
methoprene (0.25%) + hydramethylnon (0.365%)
1 PHI is the number of days you must wait to cut hay after a bait application.
When purchased in large quantities, such as 25-pound bags, fire ant baits cost around $8 to $10 per pound. If you use 1.5 pounds per acre and treat only once per year, that’s about $12 to $15 per acre. One way to reduce the cost when treating pastures with the growth regulator products (Extinguish or Esteem) is to skip every other swath. These growth regulators take longer to work but are more forgiving of wide swaths than the quicker-acting hydramethylnon products. This cuts the cost of treatment in half and does not seem to reduce efficacy that much. This is because fire ant workers routinely forage as far as 100 feet or more from their mounds.
Don’t buy more bait than you can use in one season because the oil in fire ant baits will go rancid, and fire ants don’t like rancid bait.
Fire ant baits are designed to be slow acting. The worker ants find the bait granules when they are out foraging, take them back to the colony, and feed them to their young. If fast-acting insecticides were used in the baits, they would kill the foraging workers before they could carry the bait back to the mound. With hydramethylnon, you will begin to see results in two to four weeks, but it can take two to three months to see the full effects of a growth regulator product, such as methoprene or pyriproxyfen.
The growth regulators work by interfering with the development of immature fire ants, but they do not kill adults. Mounds eventually die out because there are no new workers to replace the ones that die. This does not mean the slower-acting baits are not a good option, because these do provide long-term control, usually longer than the hydramethylnon treatments. But it does mean you have to plan ahead, know what results to expect, and be patient.
The effects of a single bait application can persist for the whole season, meaning you will see fewer mounds than if you had not treated. You will not get rid of every mound, but if you apply the bait properly and do not get rain for a couple of days, you should get around 80 percent control. The area will be reinfested as newly mated queens fly in and establish new colonies, but you can improve control by treating again later in the season.
You can apply fire ant baits anytime during the growing season, but spring is probably the best time. Wait until soil temperatures warm in the spring and fire ants are actively foraging. You can use potato chips—the greasy kind, not the baked ones—to check for foraging activity. Scatter a few chips in the area and come back to check on them in 20–30 minutes. If fire ants find the chips in this time, they will find the bait.
A single bait treatment applied in the spring will substantially reduce fire ant numbers. If you want even better control—and you’re willing to spend the time and money to get it—make a second and even a third treatment later in the season, in midsummer and fall, for example. Fall treatments help reduce the number of mounds present the following spring.
Rates for most granular fire ant baits range from one to two pounds per acre. This is not very much bait, and it is easy to overapply and waste a lot of money if you don’t have a proper applicator. A typical fertilizer spreader will put out far too much bait. And it is not a good idea to mix the bait with fertilizer because the fertilizer will absorb some of the oil from the bait granules, making them less attractive to the ants.
If you only have a few barn lots to treat, you can use one of the hand-operated spreaders used to apply fire ant baits to home lawns. Hand seeders designed to spread small seeds also will work, if properly calibrated. But if you plan to treat large pastures or hayfields, you will need a power-operated spreader that can be calibrated to apply the right amount of bait.
Herd Seeder Company and Spyker Spreaders are two companies that make spreaders specifically designed to apply fire ant baits. This type of bait spreader is driven by a small electric motor and can be mounted on a tractor, ATV, or other vehicle. These can be purchased, usually as special-order items, through farm supply stores or Internet sources.
Aerial application is another option for treating very large acreages, but you may have to do some searching to find an aerial applicator equipped to apply fire ant bait.
Sometimes a fire ant mound is just in the wrong place at the wrong time and needs to be eliminated quickly. Maybe it’s by the door to the feed room, beside the headgate to the cattle chute, or in some other place where folks using the area are sure to step in it. You can quickly eliminate such mounds by treating them with a liquid drench, but it is important to be sure the insecticide you use is labeled for use on or around animals and for drenching fire ant mounds. Note that these are different uses, and the label will give specific instructions for each use. Examples of insecticides that have such labels are shown in Table 2.
Use a watering can or similar container to mix and apply liquid drenches. Read the label, mix the specified amount of insecticide in water, and pour it over the mound. Avoid disturbing the mound before treating. The key to success with liquid drenches is to use enough liquid to thoroughly soak the mound. Depending on the size of the mound, this ranges from one to two gallons. Begin by applying about one-fourth of the total volume to a 10- to 12-inch band around the outside of the mound. This prevents the queen from escaping through one of the underground foraging tunnels and improves control of workers. Then, apply the rest of the drench directly to the mound.
Use enough drench to soak the mound well mix more if you need it. Failure to use enough drench is the main reason for unsuccessful mound drenching efforts. Liquid drenches are the quickest way to eliminate fire ant mounds. If you drench a mound properly, all the ants that were not out foraging will be dead within a few hours.
Caution: Do not use dry mound treatments containing the active ingredient acephate around animals. Such products are commonly used to control fire ant mounds in home lawns, but acephate is a systemic insecticide that can result in illegal residues if used around grazing animals.
Table 2. Examples of insecticides for use as fire ant mound drenches.
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