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Monday, July 28, 2008

Fire Ants

Fire ants, sometimes referred to as simply red ants, are stinging ants with over 280 species worldwide. Fire ants are known for their lively and aggressive behavior, swarming over anyone or anything that disturbs their nest, often attacking wild animals, baby animals, pets or people, in some instances, even killing them. Their painful stings affect about 40 percent of people in infested areas each year. 20 million people a year are stung by fireants! The red fire ant was accidentally introduced into the United States in 1929, when a cargo ship that had used soil as ballast arrived in Mobile, Alabama from South America. Today the fireant habitat in the USA covers 300 million acres and it is growing all the time. Although fireants keep marching farther and farther, northerners don't have to loose sleep over it because researches predict that they will not be able to survive in areas where soil temperatures drop to near freezing for more than 2 to 3 weeks. They are now permanent residents of North America. Fire ants reproduce opportunistically when conditions are wet and warm. They are found in all types of soil, but they do better in open pastures and sunny, grassy places than in thick shaded woods.

Fireants are not picky eaters. They are omnivores and will eat almost any plant or animal material, including other insects, ground-nesting animals, mice, turtles, snakes, and other vertebrates, young trees, seedlings, plant bulbs, saplings, fruit and grass. When foraging for food, the oldest and most expendable 20% or so of the colony’s workers (so much for retirement) explore within 50 - 100 feet of the nest in a looping pattern. Even though workers fireants can chew and cut with the mandibles, they can only swallow liquids. When they encounter liquid food in the field, they swallow it to one of their two stomachs, one to share with the colony (isn't that nice of them) and one to digest themselves. Solid food is cut to carrying size and brought back, also. Fireants prefer protein foods (i.e. insects and meats) but will feed on anything and everything. By regurgitating their food, fireant workers are able to share their food with the nest. Others lick or suck up the liquid (yuck) and the nest is fed equally. This food sharing is also why slow-acting poison baits can be used to eradicate the nests.

The most significant problem associated with fire ants is their stinging behavior. The ants are very aggressive and will readily attack anything that disturbs their mound. After firmly grasping the skin with its jaws, the fire ant arches its back as it inserts its rear-end stinger into the flesh, injecting venom from the poison sac. It then pivots at the head and typically inflicts an average of seven to eight stings in a circular pattern. Fire ant venom is unique because of the high concentation of toxins, which are responsible for the burning pain characteristic of fire ant stings.

There are several proven methods that can be employed to control individual colonies of fire ants. Insecticidal mound drenches with common insecticides are generally effective against fire ant colonies. The mound is flooded with a large volume of a liquid containing a contact insecticide such as carbaryl, diazinon, dursban, et cetera. Numerous insecticides are currently labeled for this use. A major problem with this method is that the queen is sometimes too deep within the colony to be contacted by the toxicant. Care must be taken not to disturb the mound prior to application of the drench. A disturbance will alert the colony and the queen may be taken deeper into the mound. Application of insecticidal surface dusts or granules have a limited effect on a colony if they are not watered in. The dissolved granules must come into direct contact with the ants to have any effect. As in mound drenches, care must be taken not to disturb the colony prior to application. The queen can be taken to a point within the mound where she may not come in contact with the poison. Some insecticides are marketed as injectants.

Another approach is to bait around the nests with pieces of hot dogs on a mild summer's day. Wait for awhile to draw out the ants. Then apply Amdro, Award, Logic or similar granule bait preparations. These don't kill instantly but give the workers a chance to take the bait back to the mound as food where its pesticides disrupt reproduction by hormonal control over queen ants. Broadcast these granules all over the infested area on a nice day so that the fire ants get all of the bait. The worker ants will take the granules into the mound. Be patient because these baits take about 6 weeks to take effect; the mound will die.

You don't want to kill all ants, just the fire ants. Regular ants can be a deterrent to fire ants. Unfortunately, being able to pick and choose between the millions of ants in your yard is hardly an option.

A person or animal disturbing the nest will find they are swarmed with hundreds of ants. But you do not need to disturb the nest to get bitten. These ants are tiny and easy to miss. You won't feel them crawling on you. You'll just feel the sting, which is like a bad mosquito bite. Since you can't feel them, you could have lots of them crawling on you, maybe under your socks or shirt, and not know it until they start biting. About 15% of people who fall victim to fireant stings are hypersensitive to the venom and can react quite strongly, often suffering from chest pains, nausea, dizziness, hives, swelling, shock or, in rare cases, lapsing into a coma. I'm one of these people. People demonstrating these symptoms after being stung by fireants should get medical treatment immediately. Although extremely rare, some deaths have been documented as having been caused by fireant stings.

Move quickly away from the fire ant nests. Remove any remaining fire ants from your body, even if you have to remove your clothes. Fire ants can easily get into socks, under shirts and pants, etc. Gently wash the area with soap and water to rid the skin of any venom on it. Apply cold compresses to reduce swelling. Disinfect the area with alcohol. Apply a commercial cortisone cream or spray to help with itching. If necessary, take over the counter antihistamines like Benadryl. To control infection, don't scratch the area and don't break the pustule blisters that form. If you have a severe reaction to fire ant bites (chest pains, nausea, dizziness, hives, swelling) then go to the hospital emergency room for treatment immediately.

Sources: http://www.fireant.net/ , Wikipedia, http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~gilbert/research/fireants/faq.html

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