Taking Back Your Garden
We got an urgent plea the other day from Suzette M. about some new raised beds she built recently. As soon as the beds were finished, fire ants moved in and took over the area.
If you don’t have fire ants in your area, count your blessings. The red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) is a worthy adversary. They really suck. OK, they don’t actually suck. But they do bite and sting – and that sucks.
While they usually seem like more of a nuisance than a real problem, they can actually do some real damage. They’re a health hazard for babies and people with limited mobility. And they’re a major pain in the ass for drunk people all across the southern United States. All kidding aside, these ants are a foreign invasive pest that’s causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages each year.
We shared Suzette’s plea with the Grow Network last week, and we got a whole flurry of good ideas, from all across the map.
Invasion of the Ants
Even if you haven’t had fire ants in your area in the past, there’s a chance that they’ll be setting up shop in your garden bed before too long – depending on where you live. Red imported fire ants have been in the US for almost a century – and their range has always topped out around the 35th parallel north or so.
But there’s been speculation for the past several years that the range of fire ants will increase as temperatures rise. They put together this map that shows potential areas for new infestation. Heads up Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky and Virginia – you might be next!
But lucky for you all, the range of these ants doesn’t depend entirely on the temperature. There are a whole slew of factors in play, including rainfall, and the prevalence of established colonies of other ants.
Natural Fire Ant Control
There are a lot of “home remedies” for fire ants floating around on the internet. And we got a few of these suggestions in from readers who swear they’ve worked. However, we decided to err on the side of caution, and not recommend grits, club soda, or baking soda. There’s actually a fair amount of research going on in this area right now (because of the financial impact of the ants), and these home remedies have been tested recently by scientists – they just don’t seem to work.
Burning the mound, or dousing it with gas, is a bad idea. It probably won’t work, it’s toxic to the soil and the water supply, and it’s illegal in many areas for one reason or another.
Orange Oil and Soap
Cindy V. says she drenches the mounds with orange oil. A recent study from the Extension at Texas A&M confirms that this is a good solution. They used 1.5 fl oz Medina® Orange Oil and 3 fl oz Dawn® soap, diluted in one gallon of water; and they dumped one gallon of dilution on each mound. They found this soil drench to be more effective on fire ants than a leading organic insecticide product.
Jim R. said he endorses Malcolm Beck’s Anti Feugo® product, sold through Garden-Ville. And orange oil is listed as the second ingredient on the label.
Michael R. and Phyllis P. wrote in to say that they’ve had success using diatomaceous earth to control fire ants.
Diatomaceous earth is too small to cut our skin, but it’s the perfect size to cut through little insect bodies. For an ant, walking across DE is like walking across a field of broken glass – they bleed out and die of dehydration. This has been proven to work on fire ants, but it’s hard to reach the queen with DE. And you need to kill the queen to kill the mound.
Ed B. says he has used DE to kill the entire mound by first opening up the mound with a shovel, stirring up the interior of the mound, and then applying the DE to the stirred mound.
Read more: How to Use Diatomaceous Earth Safely in the Home, Garden, and More
Several folks – including Willie P. in Houston and Levi L. in Alabama – said they have had great success using commercial baits containing the poison Spinosad™. Spinosad is a poison that kills bugs. It’s an organic product, derived through bacterial fermentation. It’s listed with OMRI, and it’s considered safe to use in vegetable gardens within one day of harvest.
It is, of course, still a poison. Spinosad ant baits should only be used sparingly, when necessary, in the immediate area around the mound. Spinosad breaks down quickly in sunlight, but in the shade it can last a long time. It’s also toxic to other insects (especially bees), birds, fish, and lots of other things – so please use it with care.
The most popular organic solution offered by the research community is called the two-step approach. Step 1 is to use a bait. Step 2 is to use a drench.
If you have a question that isn’t covered here, I would recommend checking out Texas A&M AgriLife Extension’s Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project. It looks like they have a full team working around the clock on this – they’ve already built up a library of more than 50 information sheets. Identification, treating animals, flooding, vegetable gardens, electrical equipment, and more. If you have a question about fire ants, you can probably find some helpful information here.
Keep in mind – as with many extension publications – you’re going to see some synthetic chemical insecticides mentioned in the discussion. Please don’t use any of those. And if you do, be careful not to allow any of them near your vegetable gardens, orchards, etc. If you keep reading, you’ll find that the extension also provide some organic solutions and even some natural solutions. And, as you know, the best solution is often the mildest solution.
1: Ants and Electrical Equipment – http://articles.extension.org/pages/30057/ants-and-electrical-equipment
2: Potential United States Range Expansion of the Invasive Fire Ant – http://www.ars.usda.gov/Main/docs.htm?docid=9165
3: Evaluation of organic individual mound drench treatments for red imported fire ants – http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/organic/files/2011/03/Kim-Schofield-fire-ant-control.pdf
4: Material Fact Sheet: Spinosad – http://www.cefs.ncsu.edu/newsevents/events/2010/sosa2010/20101013tomato/product13-spinosad.pdf
5: Managing Fire Ants in Vegetable Gardens – http://fireant.tamu.edu/files/2014/03/ENTO_015.pdf
6: Are there any home remedies that will kill fire ants? – https://articles.extension.org/pages/34814/are-there-any-home-remedies-that-will-kill-fire-ants
7: Natural, Organic, and Alternative Methods for Imported Fire Ant Management – http://fireant.tamu.edu/files/2014/03/ENTO_009.pdf
I have had success by dumping an ash tray full of cigarette ashes on a fireant mound
I heard a great idea from a radio show a few years ago and it works, and it’s all natural. Depending on the size of the mound, I heat up a teakettle or large pot of water to a boil and slowly pour over ant hill, stirring if necessary. It works every time since eventually you get the queen. Use caution of course hot water can be dangerous to humans and may kill plants or grass in the area but it’s a good trade off. Also, unlike with commercial chemicals the ants do not move away and start a new home since they die. Note, you may have to repeat a couple of times if you don’t get the entire nest in one try.
Yep it works for me too(.From central louisianna)
Nice to know it worked on a mound yet without having to other property using diatomaceous earth to defend territory worked, had to keep it fresh for a few weeks after watering or rare showers but then the colony got the message it wasn’t worth the hassle. I stopped using the earth so heavily as other ants try to move in kept at it.
Of the other ants some were aphid farmers so it dealt with it pretty good.
This was Phoenix, AZ, old farmhouse on Hohokam land with the main canal a few blocks away, artifacts below 20″ digging, people did bermuda grass !!! … doh!!!
Dealing with the ants on all sides with houses around so paving & all they live under & use for travel, I ended up with liquid traps in some places and used d-earth for the rest, agricultural grade came in 25 & 50-lb bags, colored not pure white & cheap from a nursery.
A memory is at this site I learned to use a rock for every corn sprout south side to 2ft tall or they die, explained ancient fields I hiked by and why I tried it on sprouts from seed that looked hurting.
Good article thanks.
Two quarts of boiling water have worked for me. I poke a hole in the mound with a long stick (as far as it will go) then pour an entire tea kettle of boiling water in and around the hole. It kills the ants with out any poison. I have never had a mound survive this.
I use Alcohol…it’s cheap, it’s instant and it works great! I make a few deep holes, pour in the alcohol
and then spray the outer area….and poof they’re gone.
Treats and entertains. Wrap a rag around the handle of a shovel near the blade and soak it with kerosene. This keeps the ants from getting to you while you work. Then find two mounds fairly close together. Take a shovel full of mound one and dump it on mound two. Then take a shovel full of mound two and dump it on mound one. You’ve just started a colony war and the two mounds will destroy each other.
about DE . It will last forever, no need to apply more . It is ground up clams from the ocean and will not deplete like a chemical. Making a bait is good. and this is for termites also—- dig a hole, put in whatever the insect likes ( soft wood and newspaper for termites) put in a goodly amount of DE and they will go to that for the bait and get killed.
I use 2 oz orange oil and 2 oz horticultural molasses in 1 gal of water. Orange oil kills the ants and the molasses enriches the soil. Sometimes it may take a second application if the mound is large. I like the idea of poking a hole in the center of the mound before applying. Will give it a try.
DAWN DISH LIQUID HAS ALWAYS WORKED FOR ME. Mix 2 table spoons or more with 1/2 gal. of water per mound. Stirr up the mound and pour it all over. Once and a while it takes 2 doses. It works real fast and most of the time you can kill the queen even if you don’t see her.
I mix some Borax with jam and put it near the nest, they pick it up, take it to the queen and the rest of the colony and then they all die of. Once they are all dead I collect my container of jam and borax, put a lid on it and re use it for the next pile of antis I discover in the garden. Works great with roaches as well.
Thanks for this useful information. Now that I am growing fruit and vegetables, I try to avoid chemicals in my yard. I am putting a link to this page in my recipe file under “kill ants.” I have been using boiling water to kill stubborn crab grass and agave for some time. It is nice to know it works on ants –that had not occurred to me.
We have used medicated foot powder from the dollar store for years. The talc and the menthol seems to do the trick of drying their exoskeleton out and killing them. The menthol just pisses them off and gets more to come out and get the talc on themselves. The yard looks funny with all these white patches but it works.
I have tried quite a few things. The one thing that has worked every time and was told to me my an old timer. Fire ants are extremely territorial. If you take a shovel full from two nests and switch them. The ants will immediately go to battle with each other and by morning both nests will be wiped out. No kiddin’ it works every time.
Good coastal Georgia technique: take a shovel full of ant nest and ants from one nest… And dump it into another nest. Takes 2 people to effectively do this simultaneously.
It initiates a civil war in each nest and effectively wipes out both nests!
Try it, you won’t be disappointed.
Thank you, all, for your suggestions and comments. I have tried the boiling water unsuccessfully, even in repeated doses on the same container, with no luck! I am trying DE right now. I bought some Spinosad but am waiting for some “less toxic” results! The little pains seem to be getting resistant to commercial fire ant poisons, and I really don’t want that around our food, anyway. I am intrigued by the orange oil/dawn dishwashing liquid combo, and will be trying that also! Dawn dishwashing liquid is good for many things, and is one of the best pre-wash stain removers I’ve tried! But that’s another topic!
Thank you again, and here’s to beating those little critters!!!
Incidentally, the diatomaceous earth seems to be working. Slowly but surely. I applied it fairly heavily on a stirred up mound in my raised bed, and when I checked a week later, there were very few ants milling around after I stirred it up again. I reaplied the DE, and we’ll see! Thanks again!
Has anyone tried to use the mushroom method that Paul Stamets created? He uses entomopathogenic Fungi. Some can be medicinal. Cordyceps is a good medicinal and attacks ants. Anyone try Cordyceps mycelium?