Controlling Fire Ants—What Works, What Doesn't
It's a rule here in the South. Following a heavy rain on Sunday, on Monday your yard becomes a death zone dotted with little, red-clay volcanoes—fire-ant mounds teeming with satanic assassins just itching to sting you and any other animal they can find. I truly believe this is why Karen Carpenter sang, "Rainy days and Mondays always get me down."
Unchecked, Fire Ants Can Wreak Havoc on All of Us
The pustule-causing stings are more than an annoyance. People with allergies can die from anaphylactic shock after a single sting. Small children stung dozens of times have died. Fire ants also take a tremendous toll on livestock and other wildlife, especially ground-nesting birds. So we are justified in wanting to kill them before they kill us. The question is how?
We're Waiting for an Effective, Natural Solution...Until Then
I have said it before, and I will say it again: As soon as somebody comes up with an organic or natural fire-ant product that's effective, I will use and recommend it. To be effective, the control must kill the queen. If it kills 99% of the fire ants, but the queen survives, the mound will just come back. So let's review some of the controls that don't work.
Fire-Ant Remedies That Just Don't Work for the Average Yard
Grits. I know you've heard about this one. Sprinkle grits on the mound. Fire ants will eat them, and the moisture inside their bodies will cause the grits to expand and the ants to explode. It's a nice thought, and I've tried it. No explosions. No tiny mushroom clouds. No effect.
Diatomaceous earth. This white, powdery stuff made from the shells of microscopic sea creatures slices open the exoskeletons of insects like ants, causing them to die of dehydration. So it kills any ant it touches. Trouble is, it's highly unlikely to reach the queen. And if it gets wet, it washes into the soil, and you have to put more down. If you're not careful, you could breathe in the powder and cause more harm to yourself than the ants.
Boiling water. You know why you like this one. You want to boil those little suckers alive and hear their tiny screams! But you probably won't boil the queen, so the surviving ants will just make a new mound for her a few feet over. In the meantime, you'll have scalded yourself, and your scream won't be tiny.
Orange peels. Citrus oil does repel ants and other insects. Therefore, they avoid it. If you dump orange peels on the mound, the ants will simply move the mound.
Club soda. Oh, this is genius! You pour a liter bottle of club soda on the mound. The carbon dioxide in the soda replaces the oxygen in the mound, and the ants suffocate. If this is the route you wanna go, I suggest you back up your trailer to the front of Walmart each week and haul out every case of club soda it has. You're gonna need 'em, because the ants will be back—asking for your scotch.
Diesel fuel or gasoline. Really? You're gonna kill fire ants by dumping diesel on the mound and killing the grass too? I can hear Jeff Foxworthy now: "If you dump diesel fuel on a fire ant mound, you may be a redneck!" No...you are a redneck.
Fire-Ant Remedies That Do Work for the Average Yard
Unfortunately, none of the controls that are effective are natural or organic. They involve synthetic insecticides. But when used as directed, they're safe, and they work.
Mound Treatments. Mound treatments include dusts like acephate (Orthene) and baits like Amdro (containing hydramethylnon). Acephate kills any ant it touches, so the hope is the workers will get some on the queen. Amdro is a slow-acting stomach poison bound to corn grits mixed with soybean oil. The worker eats it, but before he dies, feeds it to the queen, and she dies too. The drawback with mound treatments is that they don't stop other fire ants from making more mounds, so you have to keep treating all summer. And when Amdro bait gets wet, it quickly spoils, and ants won't eat it.
Season-long entire lawn treatments. This is what Grumpy recommends. Entire lawn treatments are granules of long-lasting insecticide that you apply to the lawn with a fertilizer spreader and then water the treated site. Ortho Fire Ant Killer, containing bifenthrin, works well for me. I put it down the first week of April and had zero fire-ant mounds for the next six months. GardenTech Over 'n' Out! is a similar product. (And in case you're wondering—no, I don't work for Ortho or GardenTech, and I bought the bag. Grumpy don't shill for nobody.)
One final thought—some truly ignorant county commissioners in Montgomery County, Maryland, just banned all non-organic lawn pesticides on the basis that they might cause cancer in children, even though they had no evidence or data to support this. Montgomery County has no fire ants. Once it does, the commission will change its mind.