As someone who has been working with imported fire ants, Solenopsis invicta, in a research-based capacity since 2001, I have heard many home remedies sworn to control fire ants.

One of the most popular and widespread notions is that feeding ants corn grits will make their stomachs swell up and explode. I guess if you use instant grits the ants will swell up faster and the explosion will be more violent. Ha!

Notice that I used the word “notion.” First, adult fire ants cannot physically ingest solid food. Second, grits do not contain any toxicant (poison) that would kill the ant.

There are countless other home remedies when it comes to do-it-yourself fire ant control. Most DIY home remedies are anecdotal at best, and do not provide effective long-term control. Depending on the ingredients used, they can be illegal or even dangerous. I do not endorse or recommend DIY home remedies for fire ant management.

There are many labeled products available for fire ant control. These pesticides, insecticides in this case, have different formulations including dusts, liquids, concentrates, granules and baits. When used properly and according to label instructions, fire ant baits are highly effective.

But before you ask, I do not have a specific recommendation for a bait product to purchase. I’ve tested them all and they all work well if applied properly.

Baits are most effective when used as a broadcast application. Broadcasting baits allows for the applicator to treat the mounds he/she can see as well as the mounds that are not visible. Depending on the spreader you are using, set the gate opening just high enough for the product to come out of the spreader and not block the gate opening. Then, I tell people to “turn the hand crank slow and walk fast” because you are only applying 1-1.5 pounds of bait (depending on product) per acre. Do not apply more bait than what the label specifies. Applying more, or less, than the labeled rate is against the law.

Low application rates and the low amount of toxicant on the bait make fire ant baits some of the safest products on the market to you, your pets, to the beneficial insects in your landscape, wildlife, and to the environment.

I hear grumbles from homeowners that the baits they used “don’t work” or that the bait ”just made ‘em move.” When I hear these complaints and start asking questions about application timing, methods, rates and equipment, the failure of the bait application can typically be attributed to user error.

Notice that I have used the words “control” and “manage” when referring to fire ants; I do not use any form of the word “eradicate.” The biology of fire ants and factors such as constant reinfestation pressure do not allow for eradication. Therefore, we must use tools such as the following tips to create effective fire ant management plans.

  • Accurately identify the ants as imported fire ants. Improperly identifying a pest can lead to pesticide failure, which is a waste of time, money and most importantly, an ineffective and possibly unnecessary pesticide application. To effectively control a pest, it must first be positively identified.

There are at least 121 different species of ants in South Carolina and the majority of these ants are benign and do not warrant control. You can submit ant specimens preserved in alcohol to your local Clemson Extension office for positive identification.

  • Read and follow all pesticide label instructions. It is a violation of Federal Law to use a pesticide in a manner inconsistent with its label and labeling.
  • Make two annual bait applications, one in the spring and one in the fall. Apply baits in late May/early June and again in late September/early October.
  • Bait treatments are most effective when broadcast. Many product labels allow for individual mound treatments for fire ants, however, broadcast treatments are proven to be far more effective.

When broadcasting baits in small areas less than an acre, including yards, hand-held spreaders work well. Do not use belly spreaders or drop spreaders as the gate openings cannot be restricted adequately and put out too much product.

If the area you are treating is larger, consider the specially modified Herd Seeder model GT-77. Herd seeders are capable of being mounted on numerous vehicles and can apply baits at the low rates required by most fire ant bait products. Aerial application can be an efficient and cost effective alternative when treating 200-plus acres.

  • Baits must be applied while the fire ants are actively foraging. Technically, this is determined by the soil’s surface temperature. Ideally, soil surface temperatures should be between 70 degrees and 85 degrees. The potato chip test is an easy way to determine if imported fire ants are foraging. Place a few regular, plain, greasy potato chips in different areas of your landscape. After 20-30 minutes, check the potato chips for fire ant activity. If fire ants are there, they are foraging and you can apply the bait. When actively foraging, fire ants quickly gather the bait, beating songbirds, ducks, geese, chickens, Skosh the Yorkshire terrier, etc., so you don’t have to worry about other animals ingesting the bait.
  • Let the fire ants do the work for you. Fire ants will forage up to 300 feet away from their mounds. When baiting difficult situations, such as an indoor infestation, or sensitive areas, such as near bodies of water, in the garden or in a compost pile, this foraging behavior can be useful. Bait the perimeter of the home, garden or compost pile and the fire ants will forage for the bait.

Maintain a buffer zone near bodies of water, be mindful of rising water levels, and never throw fire ant bait into the water as fish are sensitive to many active ingredients found in fire ant baits.

  • Use fresh bait. Most baits are formulated with three components, an active ingredient, soybean oil as an attractant, and defatted corn grit as a carrier. If the soybean oil goes rancid it is not attractive, and can even become repellant to the fire ants and they will not pick the bait up. Baits do not store well so purchase only what you will use in one season. Avoid repeated opening of the container, and store the container in a cool dry place to avoid having the oil go rancid.
  • Apply baits when it is dry. Do not water in baits. Apply baits at least four hours before an expected rain, turn off the irrigation, and wait until dew dries or apply before dewfall.

Depending on temperature, metabolic rates and product used, effects from the baits can take two to 12 weeks to become apparent. Be patient, follow the above baiting tips, and trust me.

Vicky Bertagnolli is the consumer horticulture Extension agent in Aiken County. You can contact her at vbertag@clemson.edu or 803-649-6297.