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Show no mercy when eradicating fire ants

Posted Tuesday, October 18, 2005 - 10:00 am

By Durant Ashmore

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The birth had been eagerly anticipated for months. There is something uplifting about any new arrival into this world. The expectant mother had been carefully monitored and all indications were that no complications were to be expected.

The family watched through a window as the birth occurred. Everything proceeded as normal. It was only after the newborn was a few seconds old that signs of distress began to appear. The newborn was a calf, and it was struggling fiercely against an unseen force. The mother reared up and backed away. She avoided all instincts of motherhood and refused to lick the calf clean.

The family rushed into the pasture and discovered the source of the problem. The mother cow had dropped her calf on a red fire ant mound. The calf was covered in fire ants and the mother was helpless to intervene. Later that evening the calf died.

We are now experiencing an explosion of fire ant mounds. The rain we had after a two-month drought has created conditions favorable to fire ant mound building. This happened overnight. Fire ants were biding their time while the ground was too hard for them to dig. Now they are making up for lost time with a vengeance.

Fire ants are not to be taken lightly. Some people have severe reactions to their stings. The most severe of these reactions is anaphylactic shock. This causes severe swelling of the breathing passages and may result in death in extreme cases. Five percent of the population may be susceptible to this problem.

Fire ants came to the United States by way of South America. They first appeared in the counties around Mobile, Ala. It is assumed that they hitched a ride among goods imported into the Port of Mobile in 1918 or 1919. By 1930 they had covered the state of Alabama, and now they are found throughout 11 states in the Southeast.

In the 1950s the government used World War II bombers to spray heptachlor in order to eradicate this pest. The $75 million program killed a few fire ants and 85 percent of the bird population in Texas and Louisiana. When the program started 90 million acres were infested with fire ants. When the program ended 126 million acres were infested.

Fire ant colonies can consist of 100,000 to 500,000 individuals. The ones with wings are the "reproductives." After a rain the male reproductives fly 300-800 feet into the air, where they eagerly await the arrival of the females. The females then fly toward the males to engage in their blissful union, whereupon the males turn belly up and die, their one task in life fulfilled. The female is now a queen. You can draw your own assumptions about how this relates to human behavior.

The female returns to earth, sheds her wings and digs a chamber underground. She will raise and feed her larvae until they are capable to feed her in turn. A queen will lay about 800 eggs a day and can live for seven years. Her brood (workers and reproductives) will live for about five weeks.

Fire ants spread in two ways natural and man-assisted. Man-assisted ways are usually related to the nursery industry. Fire ants have been known to travel great distances in sod and containerized plants. Clemson University inspects all the nurseries in South Carolina on a regular basis. Fire ant control is of primary concern in these inspections.

Fire ants have a unique way of traveling during floods. The colony will cling together and form a ball, sometimes as big as a basketball. The antball will float with the current, turning over as it travels so that the ants on the bottom won't drown. When this ball of ants reaches a solid object it disperses and overwhelms whatever it touches. This can pose a particular problem if you are riding in a canoe.

Fire ants sting by latching on with their mandibles. Then they plunge the poison-laden stinger in their abdomen repeatedly into their victim. Don't take mercy on fire ants. Wipe them off immediately if you become an unfortunate victim. Take Benadryl, either orally or topically, to counteract the effects of their stings. If you have shortness of breath you should consider a trip to the emergency room.

There are at least 157 products on the market for the elimination of fire ants. I have used Amdro very successfully in the past. Sprinkle this on the mound, and the worker ants feed it to the queen. After a week or so the mound dies. Other products are also effective. Use whatever works for you.

Check out the sunny areas in your yard. If you have young children or grandchildren you would be negligent not to do so. The fire ant population exploded this week. Let's do something about it.

Editor's note: Columnist Durant Ashmore, MLA, of Fountain Inn, is certified by the South Carolina Nursery Association. He can be reached at 243-3446 or

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