Fire ants have become a major problem in the United States in recent years. While fire ants have been prevalent in the southeast, Texas, Oklahoma and south-central California for years, fire ants are now spreading up the Pacific Coast and into Kansas, Missouri and New Jersey.
The FDA estimates that more than $5 billion dollars is spent each year on medical treatment, damage repair, and control in infested areas. Fire ants also cause about $750 million in damage to agricultural assets, including vet bills and livestock loss as well as crop loss.
Most people consider fire ants a nuisance in their yards, but they are a far more dangerous pest. If you’ve ever accidentally encountered a fire ant mound, you know how painful it can be.
Fire ants are also dangerous to your pets and can destroy whole ecosystems by killing other insects, birds, lizards and small mammals.
The presence of fire ant mounds can create a hazard for children and pets playing in the yard. While stings are lethal only for people who have an allergic reaction, pets may be allergic, too. Puppies and kittens are especially vulnerable, as are caged animals. Pets are prone to being stung in areas with little hair such as the muzzle, ears, eyes or their underbelly.
To determine if you have fire ants, look for the mound of dirt. This is the fire ant colony, where the queen lives deep inside. She can actually live up to six years and produce millions of eggs. When temperatures exceed 95 degrees, fire ants only forage at night. Their foraging tunnels can be 50-100 feet long, so they can have an extensive network throughout your lawn.
If you or your children are stung by a fire ant, treat it like any insect bite. Clean the area with soap and water. Refrain from scratching because this may cause the skin to break down and an infection to form. You may treat itching at the site of the bite with Cutter® BiteMD™ Insect Bite Relief Stick, which you dab on the bite for fast, effective relief.
Several household items can also help relieve a fire any bite. Dab the site of the bite with diluted lime juice to neutralize the infected area. You can also place a half a raw onion on the site or coat the bite with paste (not gel) toothpaste.
If you or a loved one are bit by fire ants, watch for signs of excessive swelling, shortness of breath, sweating or thickening of the tongue. This may indicate an allergic reaction. You should get to a doctor immediately. Over the next several days, watch for signs of infection, such as increasing redness, swelling, or pain. If that appears, you should seek treatment.
If your pets are bitten by fire ants, resist the urge to grab the hose and spray them down. This only aggravates the fire ants, causing them to bite down and sting the animal. Instead, quickly remove the animal from the area. Put on your work gloves and wipe the fire ants off. Treat with a topical antihistamine designed for pets. If swelling and redness occur, or if the pet is having trouble breathing, seek treatment from your veterinarian.
Exterminating Fire Ants: So, how do you get rid of fire ants, and do it safely? Well, the “old wives tale” treatment of fire ants is to pour gasoline on the mound and set it on fire. This is a bad idea for several reasons. One, your fire can get out of control, especially in drier climates, and you could end up torching your whole yard… or worse. Second, the gasoline just doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to kill the queen. This means she just relocates and builds another mound.
Early treatment is the key to controlling fire ants -- and aggressive measures are needed once the large mounds appear. If you live in an area where fire ants are an issue, be on the lookout for the FIRST SIGN of activity. Fire ant activity is strongest during the cooler months when ants are mating and migrating to form new colonies. This activity typically happens twice per year, in the spring and the fall. It is best to apply fire ant baits immediately once you see any activity.
When you do see activity, apply a fire ant product like Spectracide® Fire Ant Killer plus Preventer Bait Once & Done!™. This product is safe for pets and children, both can re-enter treated areas immediately after application. Just keep them away from any mounds.
If used properly, Spectracide® Fire Ant Killer plus Preventer Bait Once & Done!™ should only need to be applied once per fire ant season to keep your lawn fire ant-free. Bait insecticides kill more thoroughly with fewer chemicals, but they need more time until the foraging ants return to the colony to feed the queen. After 48 hours, any surviving ants will have taken the bait deep down into the mound to feed the queen and colony. For fewer fire ants next spring, apply fire ant baits in the fall. Fall applications work to reduce fire ant populations over the winter.
Once large mounds appear, you need to take fast action with a contact insecticide. These products work more quickly but kill a smaller percentage of ants, as the application often upsets the mound, causing colony movement. Products like Spectracide® Fire Ant Killer Granules Mound Destroyer™ or Spectracide No-Odor Fire Ant Killer Ready-to-Use Dust are ideal for quick, safe treatment of mounds. For best results, treat areas either in the morning or evening when fire ants are active and closer to the surface. You should avoid treating mounds within 24 hours of rain or if rain is expected within four to six hours.
The dangers from fire ants are very real. Just remember that you can protect your family and your pets with simple solutions that keep fire ants under control. It’s all about using the right products at the right time of the year, and keeping an eye out for early signs of a fire ant infestation.