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.
"Official" Common Name:
Red Imported Fire Ant
is the "official" common name approved by the
Entomological Society of America and RIFA is the accepted
Other Common Name (in
&$!# fire ant
Genus / Species:
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 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
pupating. Development into adults requires 22 to 37 days, depending on
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."
Red imported fire ants
infest the eastern two thirds of Texas and range
throughout the southern United States.
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.
Self mounting!...but Yes
(mounted specimen for viewing available in insect collection at County Extension
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.
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.
University/Alabama Agricultural Experimental Station and
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.
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.)
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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!
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."
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!
in the Garden & Landscape is an
coordinated through Extension Horticulture at Texas A&M University. Earth-Kind uses research-proven techniques to provide maximum
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