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Millions of people and animals are swarmed and stung every year by fire ants. Their burning (hence the name) bites are especially a bane in the southern states, where about 30 percent of the population falls prey to the reddish-orange little buggers. The FDA estimates that this invasive insect leads to billions of dollars spent annually in medical treatment, damage repair, and extermination. Concerned about the potential damage that can come from a population on your property? This guide will set you up to get the caustic creepy crawlers under control.
While there are indigenous species that aren’t particularly invasive or aggressive, the red imported fire ant (also known as RIFA) is a notoriously nasty opponent. RIFA’s main food source is plant sugars, making them a serious problem for farmers, but the ants also consume insects, rodents, birds, and reptiles. They lock onto victims with a powerful four-toothed mandible and then emit an alkaloid-based venom, leaving a red and white pustule in its wake. The venom also contains proteins and peptides that can produce an allergic reaction. While only five percent of fire ant attacks are lethal to humans, hypersensitive individuals should get immediate medical attention upon being stung (the rest of us can just cuss and treat the area as we would a bee sting). Small pets and young livestock that disrupt a nest can also be killed.
The Best Defense
Fire ants can invade virtually anywhere—your home, your lawn, your driveway, you name it—and their nests aren’t always visible. In an open field, however, they appear as a sandy mound that can reach 16 inches in height. Alas, like an iceberg, most of RIFA’s business lies beneath the surface, where tunnels can be as deep as seven feet. Each nest will have at least one queen that can lay 2,000 eggs a day—and a typical nest will also have up to 500,000 worker ants as well—so it’s easy to see why RIFA’s are so challenging to get rid of for good.
Choose Your Weapon
There are various ways to manage a fire ant situation—including everything from sprinkling them with talcum powder to bringing in an anteater—and each has plusses and minuses. Bear in mind that any approach that involves standing close to the nest risks instigating a swarm and getting stung, so be sure to gear up with protective clothing before you begin. Whatever you choose, never fight fire ants with fire; it’s extremely dangerous and ineffective to ignite gasoline on a nest.
Below, some of the most popular battle tactics:
• Dousing the mound with boiling water is an old-school approach. Though free, organic, and immediate, it’s not very effective. Chances are slim that the water will reach the queen, who resides deep in the nest. Drenching the mound with liquid insecticide works somewhat better.
• Pressure injecting insecticide directly into the mound is more effective because the poison will go deeper. But in addition to the perils of proximity is the risk of the agent leaking onto your body or spraying your face due to faulty equipment. Be sure to proceed with caution.
• Bait, which is placed around a mound or in areas where nests may be hidden, are a safe, fairly effective means of RIFA management, though not a quick fix. The ants take the bait and carry it deep inside, ideally killing the queen.
• Broadcast treatment with granular insecticide is often best for a large area. Granules are tossed as if you were feeding chickens, and the ants bring them home. This is the safest method because you don’t directly engage with the nest, but granules may be light sensitive and lose their lethal potency before the ants feed on them.
• A canvas of professional exterminators found a resounding reliance on the broadcast method, using a product called Top Choice. Most states require you to have a pest control license to purchase this highly effective insecticide, so chances are you’ll need to call a pro. A once-a-year treatment usually costs about $500 per acre—pricey but worth it if you’re truly overrun.
If you choose to go it alone against fire ants, you’ll find insecticides of varying potency at hardware stores; online retailers tend to sell stronger formulas (look into licensing requirements). Know that you are not defenseless and will ultimately prevail!