Fire Ants

Q. I heard that if fire ants get into the walls of a house, they can do an much damage as termites. Is there some ant that does this and if so should we be concerned about them in Texas?

Carpenter ants (genus Campanotus ) are termite predators and move into old termite galleries or into wood softened by fungus. As a result they are accused, perhaps  unjustly, of creating serious structural damage. I view them as a symptom rather than a cause. Fire ants will eat both Campanotus larvae and termites, but not wood. Fire ants also transport dirt into walls, circuit boxes, etc. but do not damage wood structures directly.  From Larry Gilbert, Director Brackenridge Field Laboratory, The University of Texas at Austin

We lived in AL with lots of fire ants and had a cedar home.  Knowing the dangers of all the chemicals used for exterminating, we did not use termite treatment.  I had read that fire ants ate termites, so we left some colonies build large "homes" in selected areas of the yard.  We lived there 11 years, in the woods and never had a problem.  We were often asked why we left the mounds and it was a great education tool for others.  I kept saying we were going to put a sign in the middle of the three mounds that said, "Termite Patrol at Work."  Donna

Q.  What’s the best way to deal with fire ants?

Fire Ant Controls from an Organic Gardening website.

I have lived and gardened in Georgia, committed to organics, for over 15 years and yes, fire ants are the #1 pest both in house and in garden. A few pointers from a long battle:

1. Fire ants are a tropical insect. They love warmth and relative dryness; they are intolerant of heavy shade and sogginess, especially in the winter. You don’t find many anthills in dense woods or thickets, or even under a tall covercrop allowed to stand through the winter. I’ve never had opportunity to test this idea, but I suspect that ants, and two other Georgia garden scourges (bermudagrass and nutsedge) could all be controlled by allowing a garden area to grow up in brush for several years, or even repeated tall covercrops; then bush-hog and start gardening again. The shade should suppress the pests.

2. Similarly, in a small area like a sandbox or enclosed greenhouse, if you can contrive to flood the whole space with water for a day or two the ants will either drown, crawl upwards where they can be got to, or leave altogether. The Georgia floods in 1994 presented the spectacle of huge clumps of ants the size of grapefruits, gathered on weed stalks and branches up out of the water.

3. Again, going on their sensitivity to cold…the very best time to dig up the ant hills is therefore on the coldest morning of the year….turn them all out onto the frosty ground to quickly die.

4. Ant mounds are often territorial and you can start wars between them by exchanging shovelfuls of ants from one to the next…a great game for kids at that age with a lust for death and destruction… Don’t exchange from adjacent hills, which may well be related and "allied"…go a few hills away. If you see nice little neat heaps of dead bodies on the field of battle next morning you know you’ve succeeded in finding some enemies! It is rare to eliminate whole hills this way but it will reduce their numbers and make them move the mound…perhaps out of your way.

5. Repeated dousings with water…daily is best, and the nastier the water the better…I like to use dishwater, will again upset them enough to make them move the mound…perhaps not far, but you might not need to make it go far.

6. Like most other insects, and weeds, they will not endure a few months continuous presence of concentrated numbers of chickens…a good possibility for garden rotation schemes.

7. Citrus peels, stomped into the ant mounds in large amounts, will make them move the mound. They must not like the smell.

8. Indoors, I’ve found that boric acid mixed into honey in a shallow container makes a pretty good ant bait…though they do seem to ‘learn’ about it after a while. They are pure scavengers inside, sweeping through for food, for salt left from sweat on clothes and bedding….and once they sweep through they usually leave for some weeks or months to come back. Repeated sprays with oils, soaps, boric acid solutions, etc…basically anything organic but nasty you can think of, sprayed onto their entry trails, stand a good chance of diverting them.

Good luck!
Bob Burns
Salamander Springs Permaculture

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