Dealing with fire ants

Acephate insecticide “kills them almost immediately,” said George Hyams of Hyams Garden Center, if applied right away to a new mound. Clemson Extension entomologists caution not to use acephate around vegetable gardens.Strychnine or hydramethylnon “bait” insecticides designed to kill the queen are not as effective as acephate, Hyams said.Less toxic insecticides are less effective, he said.Killing off fire ant nests doesn't mean getting rid of them, and it doesn't stop more from coming.“You have to stay with it, that's the big thing,” Hyams said. “Just be persistent.”As for burning them out with gasoline or shoveling one nest of nearby ants onto another to start a war, “all that's pretty dangerous,” Hyams said. “And taking shovels of fire ants that are falling all over the place is not the way to go.”Sting preventionWatch where you step is the general consensus.DEET. The powerful insect repellent does some good keeping fire ants off, but won't stop them entirely, experts generally agree. Sting treatmentS.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control: Over-the-counter insect bite and sting medicines, elevating and icing the limb.“Swear by” folk remedies: ammonia, vinegar, wet tobacco or oatmeal.Other folk remedies such as meat tenderizer or baking soda have been discounted by studies.Mixing remedies isn't advised. Chlorine products like bleach or window cleaner react with ammonia to create deadly poisonous gas.

Fire ants are everywhere right now, building new mounds after they were flushed from their old mounds by recent rains.

That means trouble for anybody who stands still for very long outside without looking down.

Fire ants clamp their jaws on their prey and sting repeatedly, leaving blotchy, burning, itching sores and tiny blisters. Scratching just makes it worse.

“It feels like fire. The worst part is they crawl all over you and they all seem to sting at the same time,” said Laurie Reid, S.C. Forestry Commission entomologist, who was stung several times while in the field Tuesday.

But wait, there's an avenger — the fire ant decapitating fly. Almost a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a program introducing phorid flies, a native predator. The fly has snatched more than a few heads off.

The fire ants, though, are still around, and the news gets worse:

Each spring fire ants mate in a mass, synchronized flight above the colonies, or mounds.

A mating can produce 5,000 new queens per colony, each of which is capable of laying 200 eggs per day.

If there's a fire ant mound in a yard, on average there are 59 more within an acre, said Robert Vander Meer, the U.S. Agriculture Department's fire ant project leader in Gainesville, Fla.

“Do the math,” he said. “They are in backyards, pastures, any disturbed habitat. Basically, anywhere people go.”

Their venom is bad enough to potentially kill someone who is allergic, and the ants do kill small animals.

The ants are an invasive species from South America. The decapitating flies are native to the continent too.

In the Lowcountry, the flies were released at Clemson University's Coastal Research and Education Center in 2004 and at Boone Hall Plantation in 2005. They prey on nothing but the ants.

The flies “are doing pretty well,” said Mac Horton, Sandhill Research and Education Center director for Clemson. “We can't say that we've reduced the fire ants by X amount, but we've seen reduction in heavily infested areas.”

Research in Florida suggests that the flies disrupt ants from foraging for food, and even better, shut down mating swarms, Vander Meer said.

But it is a method to control the fire ant populations, not eradicate them.

As Boone Hall owner Willie McRae noted, “We still have fire ants.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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