Red imported fire ants (RIFA) traumatize nearly every gardener they meet, but like Travis at the Alamo, “I shall never surrender or retreat.” Despite the unrelenting torture they dish out, I will not throw in the trowel. Nor will I let their unrelenting torture in any way diminish my love for gardening in the Lone Star State. Instead, I have resolved to Rant about these effing ants.

Photo by Richard Nowitz, USDA Agricultural Research Service.
Do you suffer from Post Traumatic Solenopsis Disorder?

RIFA are nothing new. They came over from South America a century ago, hidden in soil used as ballast in cargo ships. They traveled through trade routes to colonize nearly all tropical regions of the world, including the southern U.S. and Puerto Rico.

But I’m not spitting mad because RIFA are alien invaders. Nope. This is personal. The event that sparked my current discontent occurred as I was planting chocolate daisies along the top of a client’s retaining wall, which I thought a brilliant placement for the fragrant Berlandiera lyrata.

Deliciously scented Berlandiera lyrata at Allen Heritage Village                                                                                         

All was idyllic until I stepped sideways to plant the last daisy. Both feet caught fire. I was standing in the middle of a mound, and these ants were pissed.

Within seconds I had ants in my pants. Not funny. I flung footwear across the yard and made a vain attempt to smack the creatures off my trousers. They mauled me.

Unlike bees that sting once and then selflessly die, shameless RIFA bite first and then, once your flesh is in their grasp, they swing their backsides down to sting. They waltz across your skin, repeating this vicious trick over and over again.  

Adrenalin rushing, I plunged into my client’s pool and drowned the RIFA all to Hell and then I went back to planting the last danged daisy.

At home, Tylenol and Benadryl calmed my RIFA madness. For days I painted each damned spot with topical meds. I won’t describe what these battle wounds turned into before they healed. If you’re curious, look up “pustule.” I had more than sixty.

Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
A mass of RIFA; the stuff of southern nightmares.

RIFA cause significant pain, much of it fiscal. When they aren’t spoiling our picnics, they’re picking our pockets. RIFA-related damages cost Americans about 8 billion dollars per year, and the amount of harm they do to native biodiversity is equally mind boggling. They stir up so much mayhem, I expect to see them in the next Allstate commercial.

The real tower of terror.

But however much I’d like to nuke RIFA, I can’t bring myself to launch a pre-emptive strike using the two-step method of chemical control, which calls for the widespread prophylactic broadcasting of season-long pesticides, followed by spot treatment of incidental mounds.

Though “two-stepping” sounds delightful, and it works, I don’t want to risk harming native ants. With their boxy heads and less aggressive attitudes, native red harvester ants provide helpful ecological services. They aerate our soils better than worms do, and the threatened Texas horned lizard (TCU mascot) likes to eat them. As you may recall from an earlier Rant, I’m partial to tiny lizards. I don’t want to hurt them, even indirectly, by any product I use.

However, I would never fault people who rely on season-long ant killers. They have the right to protect their home turf using any legal means. In areas where pets and kids play, zero-tolerance makes good sense. Although I choose to treat mounds individually using products deemed safe for use in food production areas, any RIFA brazen enough to settle down near my planting beds or against my home foundation, really anywhere I can see them, are doomed.

Before doing anything ugly, I confirm the ants are RIFA. Southern gardeners can often identify RIFA mounds by sight or by evaluating ant behavior. However, within frequently mown turf, where mounds are flat and ants are calm, it is best to examine the ants more closely. A carefully placed turkey slice will entice ants to leave their mound long enough for you take a picture.  You can compare their toothy grins, double petioles and clubbed antennae to images you can find on-line.

RIFA workers come in all sizes. Kill them all.

If you confirm RIFA, kill RIFA.

Other than what I’ve already volunteered, I won’t drag us into weeds debating ways to do the deed. You’ll have to pick your own poison for that, but before you do, you may want to seek advice from your county extension service or review information from the experts at Ant Pest Community of Practice.

Show no mercy! Use lethal means. Don’t just poke them with a stick or blast them with hose water. Dozens of queens can operate within each mound. If you don’t kill all the RIFA, the survivors can rescue queens and run away to start new mounds. Keep at them until you are victorious!

It may seem that, like those early Texans at the Alamo, we are fighting a losing battle. Despite extensive research into biological controls (parasites, natural predators, viruses, bacteria, mites, etc.), we have no effective and sustainable way to eradicate RIFA. Don’t despair. Additional research can help us win the war. USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are developing new and sustainable ways to kill RIFA.

Photo by Sanford Porter, USDA Agricultural Research Service.
ARS entomologist Steven Valles and colleagues at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service developed InvictDetect,
a test that quickly identifies RIFA–if you can catch them.

Photo by Sanford Porter, USDA Agricultural Research Service.
Phorid flies lay eggs inside ant heads, then hatchlings decapitate the ant. Huzzah!
Unfortunately, the flies don’t eradicate entire mounds.

We must hold our ground. For now, the most realistic way to limit RIFA expansion is through containment. Government agencies strive for containment using quarantines and surveillance. Agents inspect commercial vehicles carrying materials that may harbor RIFA (beehives, soil, bales of hay and straw that have been stored on the ground, plants and sod with roots and soil attached, as well as used soil moving equipment). When surveillance discovers RIFA, the pests are killed.

You can help Uncle Sam by doing a few simple things. First, find out if you live within a RIFA quarantine area using the handy zip code finder provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Second, do what you can to support efforts to defeat RIFA.

If you live within a RIFA zone, kill RIFA whenever you see them. Consider altogether avoiding the personal transfer of potting mixes, plants, sod, hay bales and soil to the virgin territory outside of your region.

I must change my own wicked ways. The back of my F150 is practically a mobile compost pile, but I never realized how easily RIFA hitches rides or how attracted they are to shiny metal objects and electricity. Going forward I’m going to hose down my truck before leaving Texas. I’ll think twice about bringing plant material elsewhere.

If you garden in a RIFA-free zone, thank your lucky stars, but be vigilant. RIFA wander lust and their potential to adapt to cold temperatures may yet bring these pests to your doorstep. Inspect products you have coming in that might harbor RIFA. If you think you have a potential infestation, alert your extension service.

Flat mounds may escape notice.
If you see something, say something
to others who may stumble across the mound.

In closing, I must acknowledge that someone somewhere probably has something nice to say about RIFA. I’m sure they are perfect angels back home in South America, but frankly I have too many RIFA scars to care. This is war.

To those who have never felt the sting of RIFA—join the fight!

To my comrades in arms—those who garden in the company of this seemingly invincible foe—I feel your pain.

Keep calm and garden on!