About the Fire Ant
(A Little History)

Excerpts from Steve Tvedten's book "The Best Control (2nd Edition)"
(Used here with permission.)

[Something Nice About Fire Ants?]
[General Overview] * [Colony and Life Cycle] * [Feeding Habits]
[Stings] * [Monitoring] * [Alternative Controls] * [Mound Treatment] * [Notes] * [Control Summary]
 [ Site Map ]

Solenopisis spp.

After World War II, the spread of these fire ants was largely due to the sale of grass sod and woody ornamental plants used in landscaping.  Fire ants include a large group of reddish-brown to black ants that normally spread by one of the following methods: seasonal relocations, migration in nursery stock, natural flights, and after floods rafting on water.  Ants can be blown by the wind 12 miles during mating flights.  They can “hitchhike” on birds or mass together to form a floating ball to ride out a flood.  Fire ant workers are sterile females that range in size from .08” to .2” in length.  The larger workers are called majors, the medium sized are called medias and the smallest size are called minors.  All of the workers sting and inject a venom that causes blisters and allergic responses, including possible anaphylactic shock. A single fire ant can grab hold with its mandibles and then whip its abdomen down and sting multiple times, injecting the poison each time.  They are now found in 11 southeastern states and over 25,000 people a year seek medical attention from fire ant stings.  A fire ant mound can be 15" - 24" in diameter and 10" - 18" high and 1' - 3' deep with some tunnels extending 5' or more down to the water table and can contain 80,000 to over 250,000 workers.  A.K.A. the six-legged scourge of the South. Note: They are adapting to the cold and coming North. Talcum powder will repel them.

Fire ants are omnivores and will eat plant and animal material including mice, turtles, snakes, and other vertebrates, crops, plants, saplings, wildflowers, fruit, and grass but prefer insects.  U. S. fire ants readily defend their mound.  Disturbed or injured workers release alarm pheromones.  There are four major species, two native and two imported, found in the U. S. from the Carolinas to California.  Mating between the winged forms or alates takes place 300' to 800' in the air, usually in late spring or early summer.  The males fly up first and wait for the females, after mating, the males die and the newly mated queens seek moist areas, normally within one mile of the mother colony.  If the female lands on a suitable moist site, she removes her wings and digs a small burrow in the soil and then seals it.  Within 24 hours the queen begins laying eggs, normally only 10 - 15 in the first cluster.  The queen ant can live up to 7 years and will produce up to 1,500 to 1,600 eggs per day throughout her life.  Queens are the first to be fed proteins, so any fire ant bait has to be protein-based.  Fire ants feed on honeydew, sugars, proteins, oils, seeds, plants and insects.  Fire ants frequently enter and nest in houses and are attracted to water and electrical wires and their associated  magnetic fields or impulses.  They can ruin gas pumps, transformers, traffic lights, air conditioners, heat pumps and other electrical equipment.  Locate ant activity inside by watching the ant trail and follow back to the void and treat with ant baits or dusts or diluted Kleen ‘Em Away Naturally® or Safe Solutions, Inc. enzyme cleaners and peppermint soap, 2 ounces each per quart of water. They will kill plants by feeding on seeds or by girdling freshly planted nursery stock.  Fire ant workers compensate for changing conditions, e.g., temperature and humidity by moving the larvae and queen to suitable locations within the mound.  On cool mornings in the summer the queens are near the top of the mounds where it is warmer; as the day heats up the queens go deeper into the soil.

Note: Fire ants are tick predators - normally yards with fire ants also do not have ticks. If you have no ticks there, obviously, is less danger of disease. They also control the ground stage of horn flies. One simple non-toxic fire ant control is to simply drive over the nests repeatedly with your car or truck; repeat as often as needed. Try dusting with talcum powder or Comet®. Only undisturbed forested areas remain virtually fire ant free. Fire ants must have sun energy to exist. Cloudy, cool days in early morning or late afternoon, in fall, winter and/or spring are the best times to kill fire ants. Spring is the best time to try boric acid baits mixed in sugar, jelly or pet food. Try flooding nesting sites with copious amounts of diluted Kleen ‘Em Away Naturally® or Safe Solutions, Inc. Enzyme Cleaners or Peppermint Soap or Not Nice to Bugs® or with 1 gallon of orange juice and 2 gallons of water and a dash of peppermint or dish soap.

FIRE ANTS - a.k.a. Red Ants
The National Park Service has noted that fire ants are so called because their fiery venom, they latch on with barbed mandibles and sting repeatedly with spiked tails, their venom is injected by a stinger like a wasp’s, and creates a burning sensation and a small bump or pustule within 8 - 24 hours that can last for 10 days!  Fire ants in the U. S. are active and aggressive, swarming over anyone or anything that disturbs their nest, be it wild animals, domestic animals and birds, pets or people.  An encounter with a fire ant nest can leave a lasting memory of burning pain, followed by tiny, itching pustules, especially Solenopsis invicta, and sometimes even more severe reactions including anaphylactic shock.  Fire ants are also identified in the U. S. by their reddish-brown to black color, small size (1/8” - 1/4” long) and by distinctive swarming behavior when their nest or mound is disturbed.  See all of the individual fire ant species in this chapter.

Because of this, and occasional news stories of livestock or people killed by multiple fire ant stings, people fear fire ants.  In some areas infested with certain species of fire ants, lawns, school yards, river banks, athletic fields, mulched areas, compost piles, playgrounds, parks and picnic areas lie abandoned, unused because of the medical threat caused by the presence of fire ants.  In campsites of state and national parks in fire ant infested areas, it is often difficult to put up or take down a tent without being stung by angry fire ants. In the     U. S., they will storm anything that threatens their mound or that looks like food, whether it be old people, crawling babies, injured waterfowl, newborn rabbits and fawns, bedridden hospital patients, or you just walking along.  The University of Florida and Eckerd College have begun a 2-year study of the Red Imported Fire Ant and its negative effects on endangered species in the Florida Keys including the Lower Keys marsh rabbit, the Stock Island tree snail and nesting green sea turtles - they are finding no island is safe.

Daniel Wojcik, an adjunct UF/IFAS scientist and a research entomologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, said fire ants are very adaptable and do well in both sandy and mild soils, and in the mucks of the Everglades.  They are often found along beaches, which surprises many people, Wojcik said.  “People will have to learn to deal with fire ants over the long-term.  The days of massive chemical treatments, I think, are pretty much over,” Wojcik said.  “We are working on introducing a number of organisms from South America to provide biological control for fire ants, maybe some diseases of the ant, some parasites, and probably eventually some predators.  But none of those things are going to be the golden bullet.”

Fire ants are pests in other ways besides their stinging.  They can destroy or damage crops such as soybeans, blueberries, peanuts, sunflowers, watermelons, canteloupes, cucumbers, pecans, eggplant, corn, okra, strawberries, and potatoes by feeding directly on the plants and/or by protecting other insects that damage the crops.  The fire ants may feed on plant seedlings and germinating seeds causing crop damages.   They chew the bark and growing tips of citrus trees and feed on the fruit.  (Stop their climbing with bands of Tanglefoot® or Vaseline®.)  Fire ant mounds can break equipment and interfere with farming and mowing operations and turn ornamental turf and recreational fields into aesthetically disfigured moonscapes.  Fire ants have caused sections of roads to collapse by removing huge amounts of soil from under the asphalt.  Fire ants can nest in air conditioners, traffic lights and other electrical connections, often causing disruption of service.  (They can be quickly removed if you carefully vacuum them out - put 1 tablespoon of talcum powder or cornstarch in your dry vac bag or some diluted enzyme cleaner in your wet vac.) They are especially partial to sun and sandy soil.

Beginning in the late 1950’s, when the federal government first declared war on fire ants, stating it would attempt to wipe out S. invicta once and for all. World War II-era bombers dusted millions of acres in the South with the highly poisonous pesticides dieldrin and heptachlor. Some fire ants died, but so did birds, fish, raccoons, opossums, dogs and cattle. The bird population declined over 85% in Texas and Louisiana. When the program was finally halted, the government had spent $70 million, all in vain. Before the campaign, S. invicta had only infested 90 million acres; five years later, they had spread to 126 million acres! In 1958, the Federal Fire Ant Quarantine was implemented try to limit the spread of fire ants from quarantined areas. Hay, sod, plants and used soil moving equipment must be inspected and/or treated before being moved out of the quarantine area. USDA, APHIS and PPQ mandate plants must be pest free but do not dictate treatment strategies - Flood or spray with diluted enzyme cleaner or dust with talcum powder.

Frustrated but undaunted, the feds spent another $200 million in the 1960’s for a new war (poison) effort, with similar dismal results. A survey conducted in 1981 showed about 1 million households were using insecticide poisons and other controls including gasoline trying to eradicate fire ants (Headley 1982). Today there are 157 chemical (poison) formulations registered for the control of fire ants - but none of these volatile, synthetic pesticide poisons has ever stopped their spread. Today the fire ant epidemic infestation count is over 300 million acres in the U. S. and Puerto Rico - and the number is growing! At the time of this writing fire ants were found in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arizona, New Mexico, Mississippi, California, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

Fire ants have developed a unique method to keep from drowning.  At first hint of rising water, worker ants gather the entire colony into a ball - sometimes as big as a basketball.  As the water overtakes the mound, the ball rides the flood like a living raft, rolling in the water so all the members can take turns breathing.  When they strike a solid object, be it a swimming dog or your canoe, they quickly swarm aboard.  If sprayed or baited with diluted enzyme cleaners they will quickly die.

Increasingly, fire ants have also been found nesting in water meter casings, computers, t.v.’s, wall voids, around plumbing, and under carpeting in structures. Their presence inside can threaten pets, children and sleeping or bedridden people. You can usually quickly control them with diluted enzyme cleaners or carbon dioxide or aerosol foam insulation or steam them with a Vapor Dragon®. The ants have also been found invading and chewing on insulation on wiring and moving soil into these areas causing power failures in outdoor electrical equipment, apparently attracted (like many ants) to the electrical fields or impulses. Infested sites include household electric meters, air conditioning units, traffic signal control boxes, and even airport runway lights. Where you can not safely use diluted enzyme cleaners or steam or aerosol foam insulation, you can spray them with WD40 or carefully vacuum them up or you can follow foraging ant trails (at night if needed, with a red light) to the nesting area and then you can treat these areas with talcum or medicated body powder or food-grade DE or Comet® cleanser, or you can use some bands of Vaseline® or Tanglefoot® to trap them or keep them out. The Solar Ant Chamber™ takes advantage of the fire ants’ attraction to electrical impulses. Call them at 1-800-472-5024 and ask how the cone that is pushed into the mound uses sunlight to kill fire ants.

Fire ants are mainly beneficial insects - when they are left alone - because they are truly voracious predators that feed on pests such as fleas, filth breeding flies, horn flies, boll weevils, sugarcane borer, ticks, and cockroaches.  The Imported Fire Ant is credited with having dramatically reduced the range of the Lone Star Tick, a serious livestock pest.  When left alone, this also may deter multiple-queen colony formations.

In the South, during the summer, usually after a rain, hundreds of winged fire ants will ascend from their mounds to mate 300-800 feet in the air. The males quickly drop to the ground and die, their only purpose in life fulfilled. The females, now queens, drift downward to start new colonies; on a windy day, this may be as far as five miles away. The queens burrow into holes and begin laying eggs. Two months later there will be several thousand, each queen capable of laying 1,500 to 1,600 eggs a day. In a year, a new colony can be 100,000 strong. A mature colony can contain over 4000,000 ants. The process can repeat up to eight times each summer, spreading the ants 20 to 30 miles a year. There can be 35 million ants per acre that are constantly foraging and will eat anything that sits still for less than a minute - they will find it, kill it if they can, and then try to eat it.