Why Rick Bragg Shouldn’t Burn Fire Ants

Elena Taeza/EyeEm/Getty Images
Fire ants aren't scared of a little fire.

It’s a well-established fact that the first page readers turn to every month in Southern Living is “The Grumpy Gardener.” The second is Rick Bragg’s “Southern Journal.” Today, I’m granting you permission to reverse that order for the July 2017 issue, so that I may respond here to Rick’s many concerns about being unkind to fire ants.

Rick grew up in Alabama, which just happens to be the first state in America that imported red ants (Solenopsis invicta) invaded from their homelands in Central and South America in the 1930s. The ants then spread throughout the Middle, Lower, and Coastal South. Alabamians took such pride at being at the vanguard of this entomological plague that in 1942 the University of Alabama changed the name of its football team from the White Elephants to the Crimson Tide. Citizens also successfully lobbied the state legislature in Montgomery to change the state’s nickname from “The Yellowhammer State” to “The State of Pain” in 1960. Look it up.

Rick recalls inadvertently stepping onto fire ant mounds with his bare feet as a child and being utterly delighted by the consequences. From this, I can tell Rick was never a banana farmer, because banana farmers never go anywhere without a machete. When a banana farmer steps on a fire ant mound with his bare foot, his instinctive reaction is to use that machete to slice off his foot to decrease the pain. Last time I looked, Rick still had both feet.

This does not mean he does not bear these little assassins a great malice that can be exorcised only by treating them savagely. He (like many of you, I suspect) pours gasoline on the mounds and gleefully lights them up, each pyre doling out the Lord’s judgment while also contributing to climate change. Any ants that escape the conflagration he beats to death with a shovel.

And he asks me in the “Southern Journal”: “Does this make me a bad person?”

This is a difficult question to answer, for as the Bible tells us, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” On the one hand, thousands of stinging fire ants tenderize his feet like my mother impaling cheap sirloin with a fork. On the other, he immolates other insects that just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and dismisses them as collateral damage. This is quite the conundrum.

WATCH: The Best Way To Control Fire Ants

I shall not judge the ethics of burning, Mr. Bragg, just the effectiveness – which isn’t great, no matter how much serotonin floods your brain each time you do it. The continuing existence of a fire ant mound depends on the queen (and in some cases, multiple queens) laying up to 1,000 eggs a day to make the worker ants that feed and defend her. Unless you incinerate her deep in the ground, the mound will come back no matter how many workers you flambee. Burning ants also leaves charred patches all over your yard. Neighbors assume you’ve been burning your garbage again, instead of bagging it and tossing it on the side of the road as you’ve been taught.

Thus, I say, don’t burn. Go to the garden center and buy a bag of granular season-long fire ant killer that’s applied with a fertilizer spreader. One application works for six months. No mounds, no ants, no stings, no bonfires.

I can sense your disappointment from here.

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