By Emmett Burnett
In the 1930s a South American cargo ship docked at the Port of Mobile and launched an attack. Stowaways disembarked the vessel - fire ants, ruthless warriors, ready for battle, united by their battle hymn, “Of Thee I Sting.”
Today, the red menace occupies every Southern state and is moving north. But no matter how far the range, fire ants never forgot their “Heart of Dixie” roots. “Alabama has everything it loves,” says Dr. Jim Fredericks, of the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Va. “Long summers, mild winters, and ample access to water and food make a fire ant’s happy home.” And what a home it is.
“Ant bed” is a misnomer. This is a fortress. The average fire ant mound is about a foot tall and the diameter of a dinner plate. From the outside it’s a peaceful little soil dome. Inside packs more residents than football fans at Bryant-Denny and Jordan Hare stadiums combined.
A mound’s population can be 100 to 300 thousand. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. The colony extends up to five feet underground. It is an architectural marvel of catacombs, residential dwellings, cafeterias and nurseries.
There are babies to tend (larvae). Nursery workers will move the infants up and down the subterranean structure depending on the days’ weather. In cooler temperatures, nursery workers raise the kids toward the surface for warmth. In warmer weather, the youngsters are lowered deeper into the nest for coolness.
Scouts leave at sunrise in search of food. “The oldest ants are scouts,” notes Stephen Gates, director of technical services for Cook’s Pest Control in Decatur. “They figure, if the old guys don’t come back, they are expendable.” Young adults stay to work and protect the home.
There are housekeepers, keeping the place immaculately clean. Vigilant soldiers patrol the premises, in search of danger or a wayward beetle. The queen is busy too, laying about 1,200 eggs a day.
Fire ant nation is a model of efficiency. Thousands of tiny citizens live in harmony, working together for the common good. And none of them like you.
But with so much labor and care put into a fire ant colony, it’s no wonder tempers flare when you step on it. “If you were sitting in your living room and suddenly a giant stepped on the roof, crushing it, you’d probably be pretty agitated too,” adds Gates. “And they will retaliate.” Most Alabamians have suffered a fire ant’s wrath.
The attack is a one-two punch of bite and sting. “A bite comes first,” notes Dr. Fredericks. “The ant latches to your skin with powerful mandibles (an insects’ mouth). But the bite only serves to provide anchorage and leverage.” The worst is yet to come.
Upon seizing you in its jaws, the fire ant is locked and loaded. It then punctures you with the infamous stinger and injects venom. “It is the venom that causes the pain,” warns Fredericks. Swollen red bumps on a person’s skin are not from the bite; it’s the body’s reaction to injected poison.
“The best defense is to brush them off of you as fast as you can,” adds Gates. “Fire ants respond to vibration. Slapping at them, it triggers attack mode.”
There are several home remedies for eliminating ant beds, though most don’t work. One popular solution suggests pouring grits on the mound. In theory ants eat it and their little tummies explode. Unfortunately, if any ant tummies do explode it’s from laughter as they play in the grits rain.
Another “cure” is to pour gasoline on the nest. It may kill a few ants but the rest will smell the fumes and escape to start a new colony. In the meantime you’ve ruined your yard and possibly contaminated the water table.
Experts agree the best treatment for heavy infestations is from professionals. Most homeowners concentrate on destroying the 8- to 12-inch tall anthill, not thinking of the thousands bunkered below. “Kicking the mound never works,” says Gates.
As the sun sets today in Alabama, fire ants settle in for the night. Baby larvae are tucked in, workers rest, and guards make shift change. The battle continues tomorrow.