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Fireants: Biology, Products, Elimination

For every person (layman or professional) you talk to about the elimination or control of fireants, you will hear a different opinion on what products to use and what methods to employ in your ant control program.  This article will address the different issues: baits, granular insecticides, spray insecticides, various active ingredients, methods of applying each type of pest control product -- and even debunk a couple of old wives tales!

On this page you will find links to different products and topics concerning fireants (or fire ants, if you prefer) as well as other species of household ant pests:

Fireant Biology Ant Index Fire Ant Baits
Broadcast Insecticides Spot Treatment Insecticides Fire Ant Elimination Kits Indoor Ant Elimination

Fire Ant Biology

Fire ants do not bite; they sting like wasps and bees.  They hold on with their mouthparts and inject venom into skin through a smooth - not barbed - stinger.
It is thought that fire ants came into the United States in the 1930s  aboard ships from South America, entering through ports in Mobile, AL and Savannah, GA.  The pests are known for their aggressive behavior, nasty stings and huge mounds. Their prolific breeding has allowed them to displace many native ants.  The ants attack anything that disturbs their colonies, making them a threat to small children who have slow reaction to the ants' sting. The ants can also cause potholes by undermining roads and can destroy electrical contacts.

Imported fire ants are 1/8 to 1/4 inch in length and are reddish brown to black.  They are social insects and live in colonies which may have up to 200,000 individuals.  Fire ant colonies are made up of a queen ant, winged males and females (virgin queens), workers, and brood (which is made up of ant eggs, larvae, and pupae).  The queen fire ant lives in a protected nest which may be several feet deep and can be several feet away from the visible mound or mounds.  There may be several satellite nests near the main nest and some nests may have more than one queen.  
Fire
ants usually have two flying swarms each year when winged males and females leave the colony for their reproductive flights.  This insures the spread and survival of the species.  Swarming usually occurs in late Spring and in Summer but can occur during any time of the year.  The number of swarms (and the number of swarmers) can depend on the size, strength and health of the colony as well as contributing conditions: abundance of food sources, rainfall, air and ground temperatures.  Fire ant mating occurs 300 to 800 feet in the air.  After mating the fertilized queen begins a new colony in the soil.  Not every mated queen is successful.  Flying ants (swarmers) have many enemies: birds, lizards, frogs and other bugs -- even other ants.
Over the last few decades, fireants have shown us that they can readily adapt to different weather patterns, locations and even complicated control measures targeting their extinction.  Past attempts at eliminating fireants from certain areas (with the use of massive pesticide treatments from ground and air) have done little to inhibit the tremendous march of these persistent pests.  Most of these programs actually helped the fireant by wiping out other species of ants that competed with the fireant for food!
There was a time when entomologists told us that only a few colonies of these biting pests could survive per acre.  It was believed that the different ant colonies would drive out all competing fireants for territory and food. We were also told that each colony would have only one viable queen.  You may know travel through the southeast United States and find dozens of colonies per acre.  Each colony may contain several viable queens and each colony may even share resources with its neighbors.  This social behavior resembles the satellites of other ant pests such as the white-footed ant, pharaoh ant and carpenter ant.
During a trip to the mountains of north Alabama during icy weather, the author noted conical shaped piles of dirt & clay (the soils indigenous to the region) that averaged 3 feet in height, less than a foot in diameter at the base, tapering to a dull point at its top.  When broken (during the middle of the day) these mounds were found to house thousands of worker fireants tending hundreds of ant larvae.  The ants were building mounds which obviously took advantage of the mid-day heat to help incubate and maintain the ant larvae of the colony!  When these same type of mounds were broken open for inspection at sundown, no sign of ant or ant larvae were to be found.  The ants had returned underground to avoid night time temperatures.  Their adaptation to the icy temperatures was a sight to see, but this adaptation is also their undoing: the method might work in northern Alabama and Tennessee but will not work in northern states, due to the frost line.  We might see imported fireants continue to migrate northward but do not expect them to become a major pest above Maryland.
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Fire Ant Baits

How Ant Baits Work                Ant Baits Used by Professionals

How to Properly Use Baits for Fireants, Ants

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to develop the perfect fireant bait and every year the industry gets closer to its goal.  Any bait designed to kill fireants (or other ant pests) must contain the perfect mixture of a carrier, attractants and a killing agent or insecticide.  This killing agent cannot be too strong.  If the worker ants detect an insecticide in their food (bait) the food will be rejected by the entire colony.  This detection could happen at different "check points" in the processing of an ant colony's food.  Worker ants cannot eat solid foods (debunking the myth of Kill Ants with Grits) but they can drink liquids and carry solids back to the ant colony nursery.  Ant larvae can digest solids.  These solids are given back to workers (by regurgitating liquids) who (in turn) feed 10 or more other workers, who feed other workers -- eventually reaching the queen (or queens) and their workers.  If a dangerous material (poisons, pesticides, etc.) are detected early enough in this chain of colony digestion of food, the contaminated food is earmarked by the entire colony.  If "food source A" is found to be dangerous, the alarm goes out through the entire colony: "Do not eat food source A!"  In this manner, the colony is protected.
As you can see, there is a delicate balance of insecticide and proper attractants in an ant bait.  Too much insecticide will be rejected; too little insecticide will not be strong enough to penetrate to the inner workings of the ant colony.
There are several professional ant baits being used by pest control operators, golf courses and homeowners to combat fire ants.  There are other baits which target carpenter ants which are not listed or discussed in this article.
The most popular (click on links for detailed information on each product):
Ascend Fire Ant Bait    Extinguish Fire Ant Bait   
Maxforce Fireant Bait    Maxforce Granular Bait    Niban Granular Bait

Each fireant bait has its advantages, whether it be its mode of action, areas where it may be used or simply affordability for each situation.  This section summarizes each ant bait listed:
Ascend Fire Ant Bait is a bait preferred by those who need to broadcast bait over a large area but are on a more limited budget.  When properly broadcasting a large area for control or prevention of ants, following label instructions might be quite expensive when covering several acres with a contact insecticide.  Ascend Fireant Bait can be broadcast using a rotary granule spreader.
Extinguish Fire Ant Bait is a bait that may be used in graze lands and pastures.  Its active ingredient (Methoprene) is not actually an insecticide, but an IGR which inhibits the reproduction of the queen and growth of immature ants, thus breaking the life cycle of the ant colony.  This is a very slow acting product that can take 6 weeks to effectively destroy a colony.

Maxforce Fireant Bait: Active ingredient is Fipronil which is transferred to ants and kills ants through touch and ingestion; special attractants target foraging fire ants.  Active ingredient is not detected by fireants.  This means that there is no aversion to the killing agent, making the bait more attractive and tasty to the foraging worker ants.
Maxforce Granular Bait has been a strong performer for several areas.  It targets ants, fire ants, crickets and roaches.  Maxforce FG is a variant (containing smaller granular size) that is easily injected into wall voids for house cricket and pharaoh ant elimination.

Maxforce Complete Insect BaitThis new addition to the Maxforce family will be replacing Maxforce Granular Bait and Maxforce FC Granular Bait.  Maxforce Complete has some important advantages over the older granular baits:
Various sized granule particles.  Whether an ant species prefers a particular size or is able to carry and break down a certain size particle is no longer a problem with small, medium and large bait granules.
Multiple attractants, including proteins and carbohydrates will fill the needs of most colonies.  Rotating or switching out brands of baits to accommodate an ant colony's current food needs are no longer an issue.

Niban Granular Bait is a honey and boric acid bait that is labeled for killing ants, crickets, roaches and silverfish.  Although it is not used extensively for outdoor fire ant elimination, Niban and Niban FG are both used indoors by many people for controlling targeted pests.

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Proper Use of Fire Ant Bait
Spot Treating Mounds        Broadcasting Infested Areas with Bait

Baiting for ants of any kind (at least for those ants that will readily accept your bait) has distinct advantages: the ants do all the work and very little active ingredient is introduced into the environment.  There are also disadvantages: cost of covering large areas, stability of material (rain can be an enemy) and timing of application.
The first mistake most people make (when using a fire ant bait, or other ant bait) is directly treating the mounds with the material.  Although some bait labels will encourage you to apply their bait directly to the mound, we have found many ant control programs (large and small) that fail because of this method.  If the size of your infested property prohibits proper broadcasting, you can achieve control by spot treating in the proper manner: apply bait around each individual mound where the material is easily found by the worker ants.  It also helps to sprinkle ant bait in areas where fire ants are seen foraging for food.
Never "water in" ant baits.  Many people confuse insecticide granules (used for broadcasting) and granular baits.  Insecticide granules need water to release the active ingredient into the soil.  Granular ant baits work best when applied at least 2 days before anticipated rainfall or irrigation.  Many labels state that certain baits will hold up to normal rainfall but this is not always accurate.  For best results, keep your granular bait dry for at least a couple of days to insure the ants will accept your bait readily.
Most outdoor ant baits should be broadcast with a granule spreader over entire area (in the case of numerous mounds, severe imported fire ant infestations) in the spring and fall of the first two years.  In summer months, spot treat individual mounds that might have survived the initial application or are the result of new colonies moving into the territory.  When this method is employed, fewer mounds will be found on the property from year to year.  The most popular baits used by professionals (when broadcasting an acre or more) are  Ascend Fire Ant Bait, Maxforce Fire Ant Killer Granular Bait and Extinguish Fire Ant Bait.  Fireant infestations located in pastures or graze lands should be treated with Extinguish.  This product works very slow but is safe for cattle, horses, goats or other grazing animals.
Many baits require one pound of bait per acre.  Read the label of your bait and follow the application rates when broadcasting large areas.
Much fire ant bait research is done in the above mentioned manner.  In certain South American countries, fire ants are found in extremely large populations and are a constant danger to the people of small villages and farms.  Researchers have found that by broadcasting baits over large areas they are able to greatly reduce the ant population and help create a safer environment for the people of the area.


Broadcast Insecticides

Contact insecticides kill ants as the pests crawl through the material or the soil which contains the material.  Insecticides are broadcast in two ways: evenly spread granular products (which are watered after application) and liquid concentrates applied with your hose-end sprayer.
Using granules for ant elimination works well when applied correctly.  Mound treating with granules is a never-ending task that usually fails to give long term control.   When granules are evenly spread over entire fire ant infested area using the proper granule spreader, the insecticide makes the soil uninhabitable for ants, molecrickets, chinch bugs and other lawn pests.  Talstar Granules have excellent residual and can be broadcast in such manner.  Always use a good rotary granular spreader for proper application.
Another method for applying insecticides over a broad area is by spraying concentrated product through a hose-end sprayer.  There are many brands and styles of hose-end sprayers to choose from.  We have seen best results using either a 20 gallon hose-end or Gilmour Dial-A-Mix sprayer.  Sprayers designed for soluble fertilizers (no-clog sprayers) do not properly disperse insecticides.  You should choose a sprayer which has a siphon tube; this type will empty itself and will distribute the same concentration of product from beginning to end of the job.
There are several products to choose from when treating a lawn or other area for ants.   Our customers prefer to use Permethrin SFR or Talstar Concentrate.  Both of these concentrated liquids belong to the synthetic pyrethrin (pyrethroid) class of insecticides.  Products of this class are much safer for people, pets, plants and the environment than the older classes (Dursban, Diazinon, Baygon, Lindane) and also work better on targeted pests.
Permethrin SFR (active ingredient: 36% Permethrin) can be used indoors and outdoors.  This odorless product is also used for treating carpets and furniture when eliminating indoor flea and tick infestations.   Rate for outdoor ants: use 1 ounce of concentrate per 1,000 square feet of area to be treated.  Can also be used for mound drenching, using 1.6 ounces per gallon of water.
Talstar Concentrate (active ingredient: 7.9% Bifenthrin) can be used for indoor and outdoor pest control.   Talstar is odorless and has become a favorite for professionals and do-it-yourselfers for eliminating ants, molecrickets, ticks and fleas.   This product is unique from other insecticides: its molecules bond to soil particles and do not leech through the soil, once it has been allowed to dry.  Not only is this safer for the surrounding environment but it also gives you longer control when killing ants, ticks and other pests.
A little goes a long way!  For initial application (when spraying for ants, fire ants), only 1/2 ounce of Talstar concentrate is needed per 1,000 square feet of ground area that is to be treated; 1/4 ounce per 1,000 can be used for follow-up applications or preventative treatments.  When drenching large fire ant mounds, use only 1/4 to 1/2 ounce per gallon of water.

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Debunking Myths
When any material is "dumped" on top of an ant bed, ants are not happy with the situation.  They merely stop using the mound and rebuild a short distance away.  This is where the methods of dumping a shovel full of one fire ant colony on top of another colonies mound got popular.  People saw mound activity stop and drew the false conclusion that they had killed the colony.  What actually happened was extreme stress on the ant colony causing them to rebuild in another area.  (The ant mound is a door way to the colony -- it is not the actual colony!)
Using grits to eliminate ants became popular when people realized that certain ant baits used small corn particles (grits) as a simple carrier for the ant bait.  Thinking that grits (corn) was the killing agent, thousands of people were duped into dumping grits onto ant beds.   When mound activity ceased, these people proudly proclaimed that they had found an environmentally safe, easy and cheap method for killing ants.  As discussed earlier in this article, the stress of dumping objects on mounds merely stresses the colony to rebuild another mound.  In the case of imported fire ants, the mounds are of tremendous size and take quite some time to rebuild, giving the "grit applicator" a sense of victory.  Sorry, grits do not kill ants; grits do not make them blow up; grits do not even give them a headache.  If grits (corn) actually caused damage to fire ants, they why are so many corn fields riddled with machine crippling fire ant mounds?
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Spot Treatment Insecticides

Spot treating or spraying is fine for very small mounds.  Larger mounds (such as those built by imported fire ants and Allegheny Mound Ants) should be thoroughly drenched.  Products used for drenching include Talstar Concentrate, Permethrin Pro and Cypermethrin concentrates -- Demon EC, Cynoff EC.
Mound drenching is favored by those who have several acres of land and do not have the resources or time to broadcast the entire area.   Mound drenching is often combined with a broadcast treatment.  This "one two" punch gives a quick knock down and long term control of ants.  The most economical way to purchase a drench & broadcast combination is with one of several Ant Control Kits.  When drenching, use enough insecticide solution to soak through the mound and into the galleries beneath the soil's surface.  If water tables are high in your area, do not use this method.  Our goal is to safely rid your property of fire ants while protecting people, pets, wildlife and the environment.

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