By Darrell Blackwelder
SALISBURY — Infestations of fire ants have had Cooperative Extension’s phone lines busy for the past few days. A few years ago, the ant was mostly in the southern and eastern part of the county. But since then, reports of fire ant stings have come from all parts of the county, including Salisbury.
The pest is widespread throughout the county and very active. Fire ants are easily spread throughout the county on soils from nurseries, construction equipment, recreational vehicles and hay.
Fire ants are very protective, delivering a powerful sting. Their sting creates a powerful itch with a raised pustule that often becomes infected and may leave a permanent scar. They are particularly dangerous because they congregate in great numbers, quickly stinging the victim in unison. Small children, farm animals and those with allergies to insect stings are at great risk.
Fire ants look very much like a typical ant in your lawn; they are not large, but they are often multicolored. These are also social insects, building a colony of thousands, like yellow jackets and termites. The queen mates in flight, starting a new colony, and can lay up to 300 eggs a day. Fire ant queens can live as long as seven years.
Fire ants prefer open, sunny areas such as lawns or pastures for their nesting sites, but when disturbed, they often migrate to shrub beds, trees or fence rows. The mounds are very distinct, 10-12 inches wide and 5-6 inches tall. The nesting mounds are usually flat with no entrance holes. But fire ants can seemingly occupy an area with no identifiable mound.
Positive identification of a fire ant colony is rather easy. Take a stick and jam it in the center of the mound. Fire ants will quickly boil out and cover the stick in a matter of seconds. Other ant species become confused and will run away — not fire ants.
Now is the time to control fire ants. Fire ants are active when temperatures are at or near 70 degrees. The best way to control fire ants is with baits, which are very effective; however, they are not immediate. Workers carry the toxic bait sprinkled around the mound to the queen, eventually killing her and the colony. If fire ant mounds pose an immediate hazard to people, especially children, drench with a lawn insecticide. Be sure to keep kids and pets away from the treated areas.
Using boiling water, gasoline, grits and other home remedies is ineffective and can be dangerous. Fire ants are well organized and adaptive, with a series of tunnels, and they move quickly to safe havens when threatened. For more complete information, go online to www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes/Urban/ifa.htm Fire ants cannot be completely eliminated, but their populations can be greatly reduced.
Darrell Blackwelder is Rowan County Extension Director for the N.C. North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Call 704-216-8970.