There’s nothing worse than sinking your fingers into your garden soil to dig up a potato, plant a seedling, or pull up a radish, and be met with a sharp, painful sting, and little red critters rocketing up your arms. If you are a gardener in the panhandle, my bet is that you know exactly to what I refer: fire ants!
Fire ants are certainly not native to our area. These guys are an invasive species from South America that are very resilient, and many are territorial, with the potential to drive out any native ant populations. Fire ants arrived in the 1930s, and can now be found throughout most of the southeastern United States.
So when you end up with fire ant mounds engulfing your carrot patch, what can be done? Since fire ants in your garden mean fire ants in your food, the least toxic control methods are of high importance and conventional broadcast bait treatments and mound treatments should be avoided. Even in your lawn, be careful when using strong insecticidal bait treatments, as these can harm the native ant populations that help control the spread of fire ants. This can then lead to a strong resurgence of fire ant populations that can outcompete the native ants.
Although completely controlling fire ants in an area is not possible, there are sustainable management techniques that can help. Some fire ant colonies have a single queen while others have multiple queens. Either way, in order to eliminate a fire ant colony, all queens in the colony must be killed. Fire ants are omnivorous, in that they eat plants, insects, sugars, and oils. The catch is that they are only able to ingest liquids, so solid food must be brought into the colony, where larvae regurgitate digestive enzymes onto the food, breaking it down into liquids. Therefore, any method of control by ingestion will need to be in liquid form, or the ants must be able to bring the material into the colony, without first being exterminated.
There are some commercially available products that contain boric acid or diatomaceous earth. These products may reduce populations, but eliminating whole colonies with these products can be a challenge.
The use of a nervous system toxin called spinosad is effective on fire ant populations and is considered safe to use in vegetable gardens. This toxin comes from a bacterial fermentation process, and is therefore considered organic. But be aware, even though there are organic products with ingredients derived from botanical sources such as rotenone and nicotine sulfate, they should not be used in vegetable gardens. When using chemical methods of control, always follow the directions on the label carefully.
One physical method of control is the use of hot water. Three gallons of scalding water, which is between 190 to 212ºF, has been used on colonies with a success rate of 20 to 60 percent, when applied in several treatments. You will want to slowly pour the water on the colony, being extra careful not to get burned, and avoid injuring any surrounding plants. If you are like I am, and you often leave your garden hose in the hot sun, you can spray the ant colonies with the hot water, as you wait for the water to cool off enough to water the garden. Hot water control takes persistence, but you can eventually drive the ants out.
Another method of physical control is excavation. This requires digging up the mound, putting it in a bucket, and taking it to another location. Apply talcum or baby powder to your shovel handle and bucket to help prevent the ants from escaping and crawling up to sting you.
One reason fire ants are so rampant in the United States is that they have little competition or natural enemies. Scientists have released multiple species of phorid flies, natural parasites of fire ants in South America, and a few species have become established. Scientists at UF/IFAS are currently researching additional fire ant biological control methods, such as the use of a fungi, which has shown promise.
Remember, not all ants in the garden are bad guys! Many species act as roto-tillers, aerating and redistributing nutrients in the soil. They also play a role as decomposers as they assist in turning dead insects into soil nutrients. Ants can disturb garden pests by attacking them or interrupting their feeding, mating, and egg laying processes. Additionally, ants are a food source for wildlife, such as other insects, frogs, lizards, birds, spiders, and even some mammals.