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Gardening with Laurie: Fire ants a nuisance in garden

By By Laurie Garretson
Feb. 9, 2012 at midnight
Updated Feb. 8, 2012 at 8:09 p.m.

Laurie Garretson

Numerous types of pests exist that gardeners would love to have disappear. The imported fire ant is usually one that's at the top of the list. These ants can make life in the landscape miserable for all types of living creatures, not just humans.

There are four types of fire ant species found in Texas, only three are native. The non-native (imported) type of fire ant is the big problem. It's not known for sure when this import first arrived in the United States.

When imported insects are introduced into any new area that doesn't have any biological enemies, such as pathogens or parasites present, the insect can quickly flourish.

Extensive open grasslands and pasture lands found in Texas make great breeding grounds for the imported fire ants. Fire ant colonies are started by newly mated queens that fly into areas, burrow into the ground and start laying eggs.

There are usually several flights of these new queens during the warmer months and often after rains. It takes several weeks for these new mounds to appear.

Fire ant queens have a lifecycle of five years or more. Each mound can have up to 100 reproductive queens. Each of these queens will lay 1,500 plus eggs every day.

Unlike other ants, fire ants bite and sting. When you disturb a mound, the first ant to get on you will bite you with its mandible just so it can get a good grip on you. The bite is only to anchor the head end of the ant on to its prey.

Next, the stinger on the back end of the ant is used to inject a toxic alkaloid venom. At the same time, the ant releases an alarm pheromone, which is a chemical signal that excites and brings additional attackers. This is when you're jumping around trying to do anything to just get them off you.

What are humans to do to get rid of these pests? There are several organic products available to help you. As of now, no products (organic or man-made) are available that will totally get rid of them all. I find that the best you can hope to do is to make your ground as unpleasant for them as possible. Living in rural areas is going to be more of a challenge. Surrounded by or in close proximity to open grasslands and pasture lands will be an never-ending breading source.

In times of drought, ants will come to damp areas for moisture. As you water your landscape, you provide this moisture. Rain showers can also disrupt their mounds and wash ants into your yard.

Organic baits, organic contact kills and organic mound drenches are available for fire ant control. Putting out beneficial nematodes can also help to get rid of them in your landscape. Used on a regular basis, these products can make life in the gardens much nicer.

Until next time, let's try to garden with nature, not against it, and maybe all our weeds will become wildflowers.

Laurie Garretson is a Victoria gardener and nursery owner. Send your gardening questions to laurie@vicad.com or in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77902.

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