• 34°

In fighting fire ants, sometimes the ants have the upper hand

If I were still seated by the university phone, this early spring would have meant earlier calls about warm weather problem number one — fire ants.

Granted, an occasional meandering snake could get blood pressures higher, but the most number of “What to do” questions were always about ant mounds.

About all we homeowners could do then and now is learn what is known about ants, try what has been shown to help and give up on a magic solution.

And accept the fact of life fire ants are not going away in your lifetime.

I wish there were non-chemical, organic methods to hold down ant populations. But grits don’t work because ants don’t swallow solid food. A pan of boiling water is not still boiling by the time it gets down deep.

Tossing a shovelful of one ant mound onto another will not cause one colony to kill off another.

That will just get you more new colonies.

The Imported Red Fire Ant has no natural enemies here, meaning no predator insect, nematode or pathogen will solve an ant problem.

We humans have come up with an assortment of chemical insecticides for fire ant control that work to some degree, especially if we go light on the word “control.”

The ant bait products are designed to be foraged by worker ants and taken back to the mound to feed the queens, the immatures and the fellow workers.

Some bait products are true toxins, i.e. poisons, and others are population growth regulators. Think of them as ant birth control pills. All of the baits need good weather conditions to be most effective.

Worker ants must be out gathering food. Plus the baits’ chemicals breakdown with rain, heat and time, leaving a short period to be effectively utilized by ants.

Different from baits, chemical mound treatment products are designed to kill ants by direct contact. Some are to be diluted and poured on mounds. Others go on dry and either await rain to dissolve them or work dry by ants tracking them around and spreading the chemical within mounds.

Some entomologists recommend using both baits and mound treatments with the bait going out about a week ahead of the mound treatment.

I do suggest maximum skepticism for promotional wordings of “season long control” and such. A March through September one time dose of an ant control product seems farfetched to me.  And although it is not always easy, coordinated fire ant control among neighbors in a residential area increases control effectiveness as well as the period of reduced ant numbers.

Please note I did not say something foolhardy like “ant free period.”

But ant mounds spread because new queens are moving in search of spots for their new colonies. Those new colonies begin underground, unseen by us until rain drives them upward to make mounds above the wet soil.

So the more neighbors that treat more yards at the same time means eventually fewer colonies will give rise to new ones.

Terry Rector is a spokesman for the Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District.