GULF COAST, Ala. (WKRG) — The fire ant is tiny, but presents a massive problem. In the early 1900’s, the tiny terrors traveled to the United States aboard a cargo ship at the Port of Mobile. They hitchhiked here from South America and thrive in the warm climate along the Gulf Coast.
“If you think you’ve wiped out a nest, don’t think you’ve wiped them all out,” said Evan Jones of Fairhope. “They’re everywhere. There’s probably like millions, possibly a couple of billion per nest if it’s really big.”
The eleven year old has done his research on fire ants. He knows what it feels like to be attacked.
“It’s like a pinching, burning sensation,” said Jones, who is also allergic to fire ants. “Then the itching begins, intense itching.”
“When I was in kindergarten, I tripped over an ant bed,” Jones told WKRG. “They got on my foot and I couldn’t wear my shoe anymore. It was literally that swollen.”
“They’re tiny and they’re going for it,” said Master Gardener Carol Dorsey with Mobile Urban Growers.
Working in her happy place is a balancing act as she’s always on guard against something so small and relentless.
“They come equipped with jaws and venom and they use it because they’re threatened,” said Dorsey.
Dorsey also says it’s not uncommon to be covered in ants before they start biting repeatedly all at once.
“That is because they release a pheromone at the same time,” said Certified Pest Control Operator Fred Pierce. “The fire ant will release a pheromone telling everybody it’s time to bite.”
The owner of Pierce Pest Solutions, formerly with Wildlife Solutions Incorporated says it’s all about protecting the nest. The queen, sometimes more than one, can be burrowed 15 feet underground or more, making fire ants not only a nuisance, but a threat to infrastructure.
“They’re literally eroding the road,” Pierce said while pointing to cracks outlined by fire ant mounds. “They are actually excavating underneath the asphalt bringing the dirt out.”
Fire ants are stealthy and move quickly. Spotting an active mound isn’t always obvious.
“They can be in there and you don’t even notice them until you are in there, right up in there with the fire ants,” said Dorsey.
One tactic gardeners use is the potato chip test. They’ll place it in an area where they want to work, and check it a couple of hours later. If ants show up, Dorsey treats the area with organic insecticide and finds another place to work.
Pierce says the best way to control fire ants is to call a professional: “Most of the direct contact liquids that we use are controlled product. You can’t necessarily just go buy from any regular store. There are some products you can buy from big box stores that are effective but, if you are going to use those products, I really suggest the bait.”
Whether you’re treating individual mounds or using a broadcast treatment for larger areas, instructions must be followed to the letter.
“You have to bait when they’re harvesting, when they’re feeding or looking for food, and that’s usually the biggest problem I see,” said Pierce.
Another problem is applying too much product. That alerts the colony it’s under attack. So, it just moves to another spot in your yard.
As for home remedies?
“Sometimes people use grits on top of fire ants, thinking that the queen will swell up and die. You’re just feeding them. You’re probably increasing the size of the ant pile by feeding them,” said Pierce who also says burning or pouring gasoline on a pile will damage your yard and the environment without reaching the queen. “One of the old time remedies that actually does work is scooping up fire ants from one pile and mixing them in another pile. Mixing the two together and they will fight each other until the death,” but even then, the queens likely survive.
Fire ants do have some benefits though. They kill termites and make excellent cleaning crews including eating the meat of carcasses.
In fact, Pierce says a lot of hunter will take deer heads and stick them in an ant pile and let the ants feast leaving just the bones behind.
“It’s just neat to have,” said Pierce. “It’s a keepsake. I mean. I have bones at the house that were cleaned up by fire fire ants. When I was a kid I used to take and do that. It’s just one of the weird things you do as a kid…as a boy.”