John Cuneo

Two Southern Living greats come together over those nasty fire ants.

Dear Grumpy Gardener,

I am greatly conflicted. I have long loved the blazing intelligence of E.O. Wilson, the biologist, author, naturalist, and myrmecologist (ant dude) who first discovered the fire ant's presence in America. As you know, these bugs originally came to this country on cargo ships at the Port of Mobile in the 1930s but sneaked around awhile before being discovered by Wilson in 1942. How they went unnoticed for so long still evades me, because being stung by one is like being stabbed with a red-hot knitting needle, and if you get stung by one, you are likely to be stung by the whole congregation. I guess, like most things, we just blamed it on the Devil.

And this is my conflict: Why did Dr. Wilson not get himself a flat-bladed shovel and beat them all to death right then?

I know the higher, nobler reason. E.O. Wilson is the best of us. He loves the littlest creatures and has spent a lifetime in their study, and in so doing, serves and protects not just the ecology of them but of us all. If you hung all his medals around his neck, he would be pinned to the floor. I met him once, at Harvard in 1993. I knew I was in the presence of a great man.

Still, back in 1942, he should have gotten himself a Coke bottle full of gasoline and a Zippo lighter, and sent the tiny SOBs to their ancestors, mound by smoking mound.

I, too, love the littlest things. Ladybugs? Lightning bugs? Even plain ants. I would lie on my stomach, when I was little, and watch them.

The fire ant is something else entirely. If you catch a June bug in your hands, to look at it, it will not call in 3,000 of its closest friends to try to sting you to death. The fire ant injects an alkaloid venom that, to me, seems just plain unnecessary, and may bite with its mandibles, just to be mean. It is one of the few things that can hurt you with either end, like an alligator. But it is far worse than an alligator, because you are unlikely to step on an alligator by accident when you take out the trash.

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I grew up on farmland in Alabama, working in dirt, beating fire ants off my pants legs. I stepped from swimming holes straight into their mounds and leaped back into the water to drown them, only to see them float away on rafts of their own bodies, probably giggling. I hit their mounds at 30 miles an hour on a riding lawn mower, creating clouds of them; a kind of ant apocalypse settled round me like the wrath of God.

I am not asking you how to kill them, as I know you have strong feelings on this. I know there are baits and other scientific methods, but none give me the joy I derive from a more traditional way. We just knock the top off the mound with a shovel, pour in the gas, set it on fire, and beat them to death as they come out the top. I do not recommend this to suburbanites, as it will likely result in self-immolation.

No, all I really need from you is to just tell me: Does this make me a bad person?

—Rick Bragg

Well Grumpy couldn't let Rick's quest go un answered. See what Grumpy has to say about the evil fire ants and how to rid your garden of them.