Archive for Saturday, May 12, 2001

Invasion of the fire ants

May 12, 2001


Fire ants came to the United States by mistake.

The pesky pests were brought to Alabama from South America in 1918, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since then they have migrated across the nation and built their homes in the southern United States and now in southwest Lawrence.

Fire ants spread from place to place through the movement of soil, nursery stock, sand, gravel, grass, sod, hay, wood or soil-moving equipment, according to the Lightspan Study Web: Links for Learning Web site. Oddly enough, they have been known to be blown 12 miles by the wind during mating flights. They can hitchhike on the back of birds and be swept to new locations by a flood.

Fear of fire ants has spread as quickly as the ants and it's not totally unwarranted. Their stings burn and can raise itching, sometimes festering, blisters. In some people, the stings can result in labored breathing, fainting and death.

Each year, about 5 million Americans are stung by the venomous bugs, and about a dozen Americans die from stings.

How to identify fire ants

Fire ants look much like ordinary ants. They are 1/8 to 1/4 inch long and are reddish-brown to black in color.

They build mound-shaped nests, which can reach a diameter of 3 feet. A fire ant colony can contain up to several hundred mounds per acre and up to 300,000 ants per colony.

They exhibit aggressive behavior. They will run out of their hills when the hills are poked and can swarm around their prey within seconds.

Where nests can be found

Open sunny areas, such as lawns, pastures and fields

Logs and around trees

Under pavement

On the roof or debris on the roof

What fire ants feed on


Grass, crops, plants, saplings, seeds and wildflowers

Meat, including mice, turtles, snakes and other vertebrates


Honeydew and other sugary fruits

Fire ants cannot eat solid food so they must liquefy their food sources. Worker ants search for food up to 100 feet away from their nests when the temperature is between 70 and 90 degrees. When the weather is hotter, fire ants only forage at night.

Damage caused by fire ants

They can ruin gas pumps, transformers, traffic lights, air conditioners, heat pumps and other electrical equipment.

They can damage crops, particularly sunflowers, soybeans, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, pecans, corn, okra, strawberries and potatoes.

They can ruin lawns and crop fields.

They have caused roads to collapse by removing huge amounts of soil under the asphalt.

They can kill newborn domestic pets and wildlife.

Good things about fire ants

They are tick predators and will rid whole yards of the pests. They also feed on fleas and cockroaches.

They control the ground stage of horn flies.

How fire ants are controlled

Talcum powder or medicated body powder repels fire ants from the body.

Baits that can be taken back to the nest by foraging ants will help control populations. The baits contain insecticide or insect growth regulating pesticide that disrupts the ants reproductive system. However, Glen Salsbury of the Kansas Department of Agriculture said people should call his office, (785) 862-2180, or Stephan White, a Baldwin entomologist, (785) 594-3739, to administer the treatment.

Seal all cracks and crevices in buildings with caulking or foaming with aerosol insulation.

Web sites for more information

Lightspan Study Web: Links for Learning

University of Minnesota -

U.S. Department of Agriculture -

Department of California Food and Agriculture -

University of Texas-Austin -

Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture and Lightspan Study Web: Links for Learning

Commenting has been disabled for this item.