No doubt you are astonished and asking, "Why are fire ants featured on the Beneficial's in the Garden & Landscape web page?!"

In the spirit of being "Fair and Balanced," the following represents a research-based and unbiased approach (except for some personal opinions by me and some associates!) in keeping with the focus of our Beneficials in the Garden & Landscape web page. As requested, I will try to demonstrate that we need not have absolute intolerance for any one species. But rather, keep an open mind, an active appreciation for the facts and a resourceful approach to pest management.

I'm not suggesting that this is an easy task to consider. Our world would be a better place without the merciless little fiends. We all have searing war stories and scars to compare. If I'm not careful, fire ants can even crawl inside the dark corners of my mind; a reoccurring scenario pertains to hurricanes. Hurricanes = flooding = writhing rafts of live fire ants just waiting to make landfall.

 

Quick Facts

"Official" Common Name:

Red Imported Fire Ant is the "official" common name approved by the Entomological Society of America and RIFA is the accepted abbreviation

Other Common Name (in Texas):

&$!# fire ant

Genus / Species

Solenopsis invicta

Size: Worker ants range from 1/16 to 3/16 inch (1.5 to 5 mm) in length and are dark brown. Queen ants are larger (3/8 inch) and have no wings after mating.

Type of Beneficial:

Insect predator

Type of Metamorphosis:

Immature stages appear different from adults (i.e., complete metamorphosis). Eggs hatch in eight to 10 days (depending on temperatures) and larvae develop through four instars before pupating. Development into adults requires 22 to 37 days, depending on temperature.

Prey:

Fire ants are omnivorous, but their primary diet consists of insects and other invertebrates. To quote Dr. Edward Vargo, an entomologist studying fire ants at the University of Texas's Balcones Research Center in Austin, ''Basically, anything that stands still for longer than 15 or 20 seconds is fire ant food."

Occurrence:

Red imported fire ants infest the eastern two thirds of Texas and range throughout the southern United States.

Additional Notes: The red imported fire ant (RIFA) probably entered the United States in the 1930s in materials shipped from South America. Since then RIFA had spread from their point of entry in Mobile, Alabama, and other parts of the southern U.S. Fire ant species native to Texas include the tropical fire ant (TFA), Solenopsis geminata; southern fire ant (SFA) S. xyloni; and desert fire ant (DFA) S. aurea.

Mounted Specimen?

Self mounting!...but Yes (mounted specimen for viewing available in insect collection at County Extension Office)

Let me start with the appellation "fire ants." That's what we usually call them if a reverend is nearby or if kids are around or if our last encounter has been long-forgotten! Red Imported Fire Ants is the "official" common name, RIFA is the accepted abbreviation, and Solenopsis invicta is the scientific name. In fact, there are three other species of fire ants that are native in Texas: the tropical fire ant, Solenopsis geminata; the southern fire ant, S. xyloni; and the desert fire ant, S. aurea.

So now, setting my own heebeegeebees aside, let me share with you some rather interesting scientific facts regarding the known benefits of red imported fire ants—henceforth referred to as fire ants.

The Good:

  • Fire ants voraciously consume populations of fleas, ticks, termites, cockroaches, chinch bugs, mosquito eggs and larva, scorpions, etc.—after learning this, I realize that it really has been years since I last set off a flea bomb. A non-overstated culinary creed for fire ants could be the following: If it will stay still for a bit . . . then it's dinner!

  • Fire ants are extremely effective in controlling plant-feeding insects and arthropods such as boll weevils in cotton and stinkbugs in soybean. Under some conditions fire ants keep the pest populations below the level of economic loss providing a financial savings to growers.

  • Fire ants can benefit such crops as cotton, sugarcane, and soybean because they aerate and break up the soil making more water and nutrients available to the plants.

  • Auburn University/Alabama Agricultural Experimental Station and Texas A&M/Texas Agricultural Experimental Station studies have demonstrated that fire ants can kill other costly agricultural pests which do more economical harm than they do. These insects include the corn worms, cotton flea hopper, army caterpillars, and sugarcane borers.

  • After a colony vacates a mound in your garden, you are left with beautifully aerated and tilled soil.

  • Humans are not at the top of the fire ant food pyramid—as long as we keep moving.

The Bad:

  • A Texas A&M study reports that fire ants currently cost Texas over one billion dollars a year. Fire ants are found in more than two-thirds of the counties in Texas.

  • The sting of a fire ant is painful and can cause an allergic reaction in some people. (NOTE: We typically refer to these negative encounters with fire ants as "being bitten." In actuality, the fire ant bite with their powerful jaws this is geared toward providing an anchor for itself while it plunges its stinger into the flesh—it's the latter action that leaves painful memories and even red welts, about twice the size of a normal freckle. A white blister typically forms within 24 hours.

  • Fire ants cause severe damage to cattle and wildlife. Wildlife such as quail and other ground-nesting birds, reptiles and deer are especially affected by ants shortly after birth or hatching. (NOTE: In Texas, no endangered species has been reported to have become extinct.)

  • Auburn University/Alabama Agricultural Experimental Station and Texas A&M/Texas Agricultural Experimental Station studies have demonstrated that large fire ant mounds can severely damage farm equipment during soybean and hay harvest and can sting farm workers handling harvested cotton and other crops.

  • Fire ants interrupt our God given right to walk barefoot in our grass.

The Lovely (to the vengeful among us):

There will never be a time (or at least anytime in the near future—keep cheering on genetic engineers/molecular biologists) when we are rid of the fire ant, but hope for reasonable control is on the horizon.

In several counties across Texas, fire ants are being parasitized with the eggs of a parasitic fly that targets and controls fire ant populations. After the eggs hatch, the larva travels into the head of the ant to dissolve and feed off the connective tissue, thereby causing the head to drop off. This, happily, is how their natural enemy, the Brazilian phorid fly, Pseudacteon sp. (family Phoridae), operates. The Galveston County Extension Office has one confirmed case of this parasitic fly occurring here.

Since 1995, the USDA has worked together with agricultural scientists across the southern US to establish sustainable populations of the parasitic phorid fly. The effects of parasitization reduce fire ant populations in two ways: Slight but satisfying, there is direct impact as the flies infect individual worker ants. The most powerful impact comes with the reign of terror. When flies hover over the mound, ants run for cover, thereby disrupting the ravenous foraging of the entire colony.

This disorder allows other ant species to better compete for existing resources. And that qualifies as hope for ecological harmony. Until then, here we are on our colony-pocked play ground. On one side of the teeter totter sits the fire ant – weighted with our loathing and collective misery. On the other side sits us, with our lightened load of pests and our aerated soil. We're on the high side, for sure, but we can all appreciate that our feet are safely off the ground—all of us having become masters of levitation. And if it all becomes too much – there's still plenty of territory north of the Fire Ant line.

The Lighter Side of Life . . . Some Perspectives:

In celebration of humor in the face of our little reddish plague, I'll leave you with responses collected when I asked friends, family, and fellow Master Gardeners to answer: "What is Your Favorite Thing about Fire Ants?"

  • My friend Ellen finds solace in commiseration: They give all good Texans something to complain about.

  • My brother-in-law, John: I like killing fire ants for the entertainment value.

  • My father: That they don't live in Kansas! (Yet…)

  • My friend and MG by default, Mike: They're God's little creatures and that's the safest thing I can say about the little……., supposing even they have a little yin and yang to 'em.

  • My Galveston County Horticulture Agent, Dr. Johnson: I would always be able to earn extra income after retirement by sharpening lawn mower blades and repairing engine drive shafts damaged from encounters with fire ant mounds.

  • Laura Bellmore (Master Gardener, Class of 1993): My favorite thing about fire ants is the sound they make when you set them on fire . . . hah hah hah. They make a little popping sound, like pop-ants! I suppose we can also say they are part of the process in the compost bin . . . but it's a stretch!

  • Also, along the line of Mike's thinking . . . it's God's little way of reminding us we're not in charge.

  • Cooky Oberg (Master Gardener, Class of 2002): I think it's insane to list fire ants as potentially beneficial (other than the pleasure of killing them and scaring Yankees), considering how much literature A&M has put out on how devastating they've been to Texas agriculture.

  • Donya Camp (Master Gardener, Class of 2005): They are beneficial because they leave the soil aerated and pliable, which is good for our gardens. Whenever any part of their mound is disturbed, the ants closest to the disturbance give off a' signal' to all the others that there is trouble. That's why when you just barely touch the edge of a mound, they can immediately begin crawling all over! Also, you might want to try this website: http://insects.tamu.edu. Then, click on Texas Insects. If you look under their order (Hymenoptera), you will find plenty of info written by Dr. J. A. Jackman, Extension Entomologist at Texas A&M.

  • Julie Moncur: (Master Gardener, Class of 2006): I like the nicely tilled soil hills they leave behind when they have vacated. I treat the piles with a mixture of orange oil, agricultural molasses and dawn dishwashing liquid. They run away and leave me a nice pile of soil that I move about as needed in the garden.

  • Deborah Rankin (Master Gardener, Class of 2007): Although fire ants are a big challenge to keep under control, one of the benefits of having the fire ants around (at least in East Texas) is that they kill ticks. If you have ever spent any time in the Piney Woods of East Texas, you understand how valuable that can be to you, your dogs and your livestock.

  • John Johns (Master Gardener, Class of 2003): I believe that as they are becoming "naturalized" to the area. They are being kept in check my nature's natural balances. For example – I sent Dr. J an article (can't remember when) – via my rose network – that talked about a natural virus/fungus that was discovered attacking the fire ant population – I think it was discovered by either Texas A&M or LSU.

  • Laurel Stine (Master Gardener, Class of 2002): Hmmmm . . . I think I love my fire ants because: 1.) Now I really watch where I put my feet when I'm outside—think of all the stubbed toes and sprained ankles that are prevented; 2.) Those little stinkers do an excellent job of picking up seeds, etc. like their other ant brethren; and 3.) They have forcibly made me notice and appreciate how neatly creatures evolve to fit their ecological niche. Now that I'm thinking about it, nah, I don't really love them.

  • Judy Walls (Master Gardener, Class of 1992): They provide an additional form of aerobic exercise. More motivating than any fitness trainer, they inspire me to leap to my feet and dance around my front yard, while ripping my shoes and socks off. Sometimes I even feel like running.

  • Johnell McKee (Master Gardener, Class of 1998): The only thing I can share with you about fire ants is that it makes me feel guilty when I see a mound in my yard, because I then realize that I haven't been spending enough time gardening. Awhile back I read that to be a diligent gardener your shadow must fall across your yard daily . . . so if you have fire ants, you need to think about spending more time with your personal environment.

  • Frank Resch (Master Gardener, Class of 2007): When I was a kid growing up in Northeast Texas in the 50's, every spring you would come back from the woods with thousands of seed ticks. Your mama would have to put you in a bath tub with Stanley Germtrol to get rid of them. You might smell a bit odd when you got out of the tub, but the ticks would go down the drain with the water. But after our beloved fire ants arrived in the 70's, I have only seen one tick in the last 30 years. And that is not to mention that I haven't had a roach fly across the room in almost that long. And for sure, you don't get scared any more when walking across a field and flushing a covey of quail. God bless those little fierce red devils.

  • Bettie Moss (Master Gardener, Class of 2001): A good thing fire ants do is encourage all of us, especially children, to wear shoes or some sort of foot covering while we frolic in their habitat outdoors. Maybe that prevents other foot injuries, besides fire ant bites, we could encounter!

Another Interesting Note:

In 2005 the Texas legislature designated April 14th as Fire Ant Prevention Day. During the ceremony Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs urged Texas to unite in their fight against the fire ants in order to control damage to households and agriculture. "It doesn't do us any good to chase the ants from property line to property line," Combs said. "Ants are known for working together. People need to work together also."

A Philological Perspective:

The following aphorism from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is rather appropriate in this narrative on fire ants: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." We'll always loathe them, war with them and fear them. I would much rather have to put out the flea bombs in exchange for the disappearance of fire ants—but in the meantime, I do appreciate not having fleas in yard!

Beneficials in the Garden & Landscape is an Earth-KindTM program coordinated through Extension Horticulture at Texas A&M University. Earth-Kind uses research-proven techniques to provide maximum gardening and landscape enjoyment while preserving and protecting our environment.

 

This web site is maintained by Master Gardener Laura Bellmore, under the direction of William M. Johnson, Ph.D., County Extension Agent-Horticulture & Master Gardener Program Coordinator.

All digital photographs are the property of  the Galveston County Master Gardener Association, Inc. (GCMGA) © 2002-2006 GCMGA - All Rights Reserved.