The population of the red imported fire ant in the American South is not only growing at an alarming rate but also migrating northward and westward. The fire ant is one of the only ant species on the planet that has the ability to sting, and it gets its name from the burning sensation that a person feels after being stung.
A single fire ant may sting multiple times, using its strong jaws to clamp down on the victim while repeatedly injecting venom with the stinger at the end of its abdomen. A person unlucky enough to step on a fire ant nest may be stung hundreds of times.
Fire ants also have a deleterious effect on the environment and indigenous wildlife: deer, turkeys, quail, and songbirds have succumbed to them, and the ants have no natural predators in the United States.
Signs of a Fire Ant Problem
If you’re stung by fire ants in or around your home, or if you see fire ants inside your home, you have a problem.
For safety purposes, it’s best that you deal with fire ants with direct chemical and biological control, rather than attempting a less immediate form of physical control. If you notice a fire ant trail that you want to treat chemically, don’t tamper with it. It’s easier to kill ants when they are on a trail—you can see them better that way.
- Boric acid (borax): A sweet bait trap made with boric acid and sugar water or syrup is the least toxic ant control pesticide on the market. (Terro® makes an effective sweet bait.)
- Granular protein bait: A granular protein bait specifically labeled for use against fire ants is your next line of defense, as fire ants are attracted to meats and other proteins. You may deploy a protein bait indoors or outdoors, but if you have pets or small children in the home, it’s best to spread the bait outdoors only.
- Soapy water: Once you’ve reduced the amount of fire ant traffic with baits, fill a bottle with warm, soapy water and spray the remaining ants and the ant trail. Let it sit for a few minutes, then come back and wipe up the dead ants. Soap kills smaller insects effectively and also breaks down the chemical trail the ants were using to find the food.
Keeping Fire Ants Away
- Barrier treatment: If you happened to notice where the fire ants were coming into your home, you can either seal the crack with a little bit of caulk or use a barrier treatment, usually an insecticidal dust that’s spread around the outside of a house. (The Ant Shield®, manufactured by Spectracide®, is also labeled for indoor use.) Simply dust the area where the ants were entering your home, and you shouldn’t have any more problems there.
- Broadcast baiting: The granular protein baits mentioned above can also be used to control ants closer to their nests outside. Fire ants forage for food in no particular or sensible pattern, and often at quite a distance from their nest. Try broadcast baiting—spreading the granules of bait across your lawn.
- Drenching: If you know where the fire ants are nesting and you’re agile enough to avoid being swarmed and stung, you may also want to try pouring a mixture of water and an insecticidal dust such as Sevin®, Dursban®, or even Spectracide’s Ant Shield into the nest. This is called drenching, and it should be done about six weeks after broadcast baiting so that ant populations are reduced.
- Sealing: Seal your home and do your best to maintain sanitary living conditions. Leaving doors and windows open and food lying around the home is an invitation for a fire ant infestation, especially if you live in a southern state, where fire ant populations are firmly established.