If you live in the American South, along the Gulf Coast, or in some parts of the Southwest, you are probably entirely, personally familiar with the subject of this article already.
For the rest of you, today you will learn about one of the most damaging, painful, and tiny invasive species in the United States: the red imported fire ant, or as it’s more commonly known, simply the fire ant.
These insects live in huge colonies that can number in the hundreds of thousands. And when their nest is disturbed, every fire ant will swarm and attack whatever it perceives as a threat.
They reproduce quickly and are literally taking over entire sectors of the states where they are found, driving out competing beneficial ants and pillaging other insect species to the point of eradication.
Worse, they can quickly overwhelm people and animals, stinging painfully and repeatedly.
Billions are spent every year on control and medical treatment, all stemming directly from the littlest of the devil’s minions.
If you have even a tiny fire ant nest on your property, it cannot be live and let live; they multiply quickly, so you should dispatch them while you can. This article will tell you how.
What are We Dealing With? A Fire Ant Overview
Before we can exterminate our hated foe, we must come to know it. The red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta and colloquially called RIFA, is a small but seriously successful ant that hails originally from South America.
It was first seen in the U.S. in the 1930s, likely having arrived hidden away in soil used as ballast on cargo ships coming from Brazil.
The first official nests were documented in Alabama and Mississippi, but these pests have since spread to every state south of the Mason-Dixon Line, plus some far away instances in New England, the Pacific Northwest, and California.
These insects get their name from both their color and their painful sting. We’ll talk more about their sting and the accompanying venom in a moment.
Regarding their color, they are fairly easy to identify thanks to their reddish-copper slightly translucent head and thorax ahead of a black-brown abdomen.
Fire ants exhibit caste dimorphism, with workers coming in a variety of sizes, meaning it is normal to see an army of these ants both great and small when you discover them, ranging from about one-eighth to three-eighths of an inch in length.
The queen is the largest of the colony and it can grow to be up to a quarter of an inch long, but you probably won’t see her, as she will reside deep inside the nest at virtually all times.
RIFAs are a monumentally destructive invasive species, so much so that literally billions of dollars are spent on remediation, extermination, and medical treatment for people and animals alike, yearly. They can make your life and property a living hell also, unless you stop them.
Why are Fire Ants a Problem?
You might wonder how such tiny insects could pose such a huge problem, but remember that we are talking about entire colonies numbering in the tens to hundreds of thousands, even millions, biting, stinging individual ants.
They work together broadly as one unit with a common purpose, which is to find food and protect their nest at all costs.
Thanks to their venomous sting, they are more than capable of driving off or killing nearly anything that threatens them, no matter how big it may be. And that includes you and me perched up here at the top of the food chain!
Please believe me when I say that these things are a colossal problem for the country. Here’s why:
Fire Ants are Pervasive
Fire ants multiply with alarming speed, even among ants. A mature queen can lay 1,600 eggs per day with a high viability rate.
Large nests may host multiple queens, each holding court and laying all day and all night long. Do the math: they can quickly overwhelm an area by sheer weight of numbers.
Fire Ants are Persistent
Fire ants are highly adaptable and good at finding food. They eat all kinds of stuff and are among the most omnivorous of all ants.
They will consume just about anything that contains even a small amount of protein, including but not limited to:
- other insects and arthropods
- recycled greasy food from dumpsites
- wire lining
- animals both dead and alive including lizards, snakes, rodents, chicks, puppies, and more
Nothing is off the table for these things, literally.
Fire Ants are Hardy
Compared to other ant species, fire ants are bonafide survivalists. I guess we can offer them our grudging respect in that regard.
Fire ants can withstand just about anything except deep, prolonged cold. Heat doesn’t slow them.
Even floods don’t kill them; they band together in hellish, living rafts on the surface of the water, waiting for it to go down!
They will readily relocate their entire nests if they sense serious danger or a lack of food, and can travel long distances in search of more accommodating territory.
Fire Ants are Damaging
I was not exaggerating earlier when I said that fire ants are a destructive force of nature. Each year they imperil harvests or directly wipe out crops.
They kill baby animals in the nest, or animals too sick or lame to escape. They even directly damage vehicles and other machinery if you can believe it. These monsters cause no less than $5 billion in damage, total, yearly.
Fire Ants are Dangerous
Fire ants pose a real and present danger to human beings. Each year, they send hundreds and hundreds of people to the ER with serious injuries from their tenacious swarming attacks and are responsible for the deaths of many pets and livestock animals.
It seems hard to believe that ants scarcely bigger than a pencil lead are capable of such acts, but it is true. All of it.
Fire Ant Stings Can Kill!
One particular concern associated with fire ant stings is the unusual potency of their venom.
This venom, called solenopsin, causes immediate pain and redness at the site of the sting that can last up to 48 hours, and in some cases, can lead to serious allergic reactions.
A white pustule will invariably form, but will disappear in a few days, often leaving a scar behind.
A single fire ant sting will get your attention, but might not amount to much, but if you are unlucky enough to be swarmed by them, the results can be catastrophic.
Solenopsin is a neurotoxin that starts to attack the nervous system immediately upon injection. It also shows a curious escalating effect in about a quarter of the human population.
People who are stung may become more sensitive to the venom over time, progressing to full-blown allergy.
This means a sting or series of stings can cause everything from minor irritation to full-blown anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal if not treated quickly.
Death from fire ant stings is rare in the United States, but it does happen, usually to very young children, the elderly, or those with pre-existing conditions that compromise their immune system.
Significant medical complications owing to increased sensitivity to venom is far, far more common.
If you experience anything more than topical, localized pain from a fire ant sting, seek medical attention immediately, and don’t assume you are safe just because you were stung before with no major effects!
Locating Fire Ant Nests
I trust I have painted a grim enough picture of these evil critters by now, but I am dead serious when I say that you need to be on the lookout for their nests and take action the moment you spot them.
Fire ants build their nests out of dirt and are not in any way sensitive to soil type. If it is dirt, they can dig it.
They prefer to build their nest under something, be it a paver stone, tree trunk or even a slab of pavement.
Fire ants will tunnel so prolifically that they have even undermined structures and roads before. No joke!
If they cannot find a suitable hiding place or just find a food-rich area they might build right out in the open, though usually in moist or well-irrigated soil.
This will lead to the construction of an opening to the nest that is surrounded by a donut or volcano-shaped mound of dirt around it.
This mound can grow up to a foot high for expansive colonies and even small ones are easy to spot.
Depending on where the ants have nested, you might not be able to visually spot the nest opening.
But you will always be able to spot the ants if you pay attention: They will be coming and going in long lines, often following paths they have created by packing down the dirt.
If you see this convoy of biting bastards, carefully follow it and you should find the nest soon enough!
One more thing to remember: fire ants won’t nest in or infest your house. Not really. They will invade your house looking for food, but chances are if you follow them from their loot site back to where they are coming from it will lead outside.
8 Methods for Getting Rid of Fire Ants for Good
Alright, time to send these rotten bugs into the great beyond. The following methods will help you do that, in order from the most extensive and impactful to the least.
If you want to skip straight to total annihilation, start at the top. If you want to lay off the hardcore treatments as long as you can, start at the bottom.
1. Call an Exterminator
Sometimes it is worth your time, sanity, and money to let the pros tangle with fire ants. No shame in it!
If you decide to go this route, be sure to have a sit-down with the company you are thinking of hiring and ask about their track record with fire ants. If they seem confident and have a solid plan, great! If not, look elsewhere.
Exterminators will likely use multiple strategies at once, based on what they find: some kind of broadcast treatment, meaning they will treat your entire yard (or at least the areas where fire ants are known to nest) with an insecticide and then directly target any nests.
They will also, likely employ perimeter treatments around your home, hopefully proofing it against invasion.
In any case, pro exterminators come packing heavy-duty pesticides that you and I don’t have easy access to. This could be solid granules or liquid treatments that the exterminator sprays on your behalf.
You can rest assured that this will kill the ants painfully and quickly, but at the cost of affecting many other insects, including good ones, across your yard as well.
Either way, you can bet that a trusty exterminator will eradicate fire ant workers and their queens, collapsing the colonies and giving you some much-needed relief. They may come back in the future, but that is a battle for another day.
2. Broadcast Granules
If you have multiple nests across your whole property or are constantly dealing with fire ant incursions from neighboring properties, you are well advised to treat your entire yard (or the active areas) with pesticide granules.
This is a slow and steady method, as the granules need to dissolve with water or contact the ants for them to work.
But it does have the advantage of being an all-over, always “on” method of treatment, but it will still kill many other kinds of insects, however.
The most popular kind of broadcast granules contain bifenthrin, which is sold under many trade names, so just look for the active ingredients to know you are getting the right stuff.
Do note that this stuff has a rank smell when it dissolves, but you’d rather live with the odor rather than these critters, trust me.
Just follow the directions on the package carefully, and use a drop spreader or broadcast spreader as prescribed. Make sure you get the target density for total coverage, or else some ants might get missed.
And, keep in mind: this is the nuclear option: you will be covering your entire property with poison, and that might mean trouble for your pets or kids whatever the package promises about its safety.
Still, a season of keeping off the grass will likely be worth it if it means eliminating fire ants.
3. Scatter Granules around Nest Site
If your property is not so overwhelmed that you need to resort to treatment over the whole yard, you can zero in on the nest site by spreading a generous amount of pesticide granules around it.
This will work if you have found an active mound or if you have traced ants back to precisely where they are coming from.
This is a more targeted approach and will not kill as many other insects as a broadcast treatment, but remember that any insecticide you use will still affect many other organisms.
All you’ll need to do is ring the nest with granules and follow the instructions on the container, either wetting them or leaving them dry as you are told.
You don’t need to go crazy with this, a light layer that covers the ground should suffice. Remember to look for a product that contains bifenthrin as the active ingredient.
Although it takes time to kill all the ants in the colony, and might not directly kill the queen if will usually result in colony collapse since the ants won’t be able to replace their numbers or care for their young at the rate they are dying. Too bad, so sad.
This method has the benefit of killing ants as they return and leave on their rounds and creating a much smaller “hot” zone compared to an all-over broadcast, so it is less dangerous to pets and children. Just be sure not to treat an area larger than what is necessary to target the ants.
4. Douse Nest with Liquid Pesticide
Direct action taken to its logical extreme. Soaking a fire ant nest with liquid pesticide, and I mean really soaking it, usually ensures that you’ll poison the whole lot, including the queen.
This is a great way to thoroughly eliminate a single mound, but it’s not the best for dealing with multiple nests and has some risks.
If you are going to drench a nest, choose an insecticide with beta-cyfluthrin as the active ingredient (again sold under many trade names). This will give you the best chance of success in one shot.
Note that this stuff is toxic, so follow mixing instructions to the letter and take all necessary precautions: use gloves, glasses, and protective clothing if recommended. Also, keep children and pets away from the area until it dries out.
Anyway, there is nothing to it: all you need to do is hit the average nest with several gallons of liquid until it is totally soaked.
You won’t be able to see all where the liquid goes, but with enough you can be reasonably sure it will reach the queen’s chambers and all the eggs.
That means lights out for the colony, even if some workers survive. Additionally, any ants that are returning or exiting will get good and sauced and subsequently die.
Speaking of exiting, remember those risks I talked about? Yeah.
Here’s the major risk associated with this technique: fire ants don’t appreciate having their nest flooded, with rain or poison, and will come boiling out in a furious wave to bite and sting the hell out of whosoever happens to be standing there pouring stuff on them at the time.
It will take you a couple of minutes at least to execute this plan effectively, and that is more than enough time for a couple of hundred fire ants to make their way up your leg.
So while you are readying your concoction, take the necessary precautions: wear long pants, socks, boots, and gloves. Keep an eye out for retaliation, and pull back if you need to.
5. Use Fire Ant Baits
For a more surgical strike against individual colonies, or to sabotage fire ants that invade your house or trash can looking for food, use poison baits.
Fire ant baits are specially formulated to be attractive to foraging fire ants.
The workers will then take the bait back to their nest and share it with the other members of their colony. Eventually, hopefully, this includes the queen. That is the real goal of using these sorts of poisons.
Because it takes time for enough ants to die to affect the whole population, or for the colony to die off after a queen gets the poison pill, you will probably see no appreciable reduction in ant activity compared to the above methods.
But baits have the great benefit of being decisive when they work, and also being minimally harmful to other insects.
They are also not too dangerous for kids or pets so long as they don’t chew on the “motels” or the tidbits, depending on the type.
There are many brands and different insecticide formulations for ant baits, including some specially designed for fire ant extermination. They all work more or less the same, so buy what is best for your budget and your application.
6. Scatter Diatomaceous Earth
The first of our poison-free approaches is also one of the best. Diatomaceous earth is a very fine powder made from the fossilized remains of microscopic sea creatures.
No, I am not making that up. It works by cutting through the fire ant’s waxy exoskeleton, causing them to dehydrate and die. Turns out that if their fine, outer shells get lacerated, they are not long for this world.
This is an incredibly effective method for killing fire ants, but it has some drawbacks.
First, it only kills the ants that come in direct contact with the dust. So if you have a very large nest or many nests, this might not be the best method for you.
Second, it is pretty messy. The powder gets everywhere and is hard to clean up.
Third, it can be hazardous to people and pets if inhaled, so take precautions when using it. Lastly, it only works reliably when it is dry, so don’t use it in the rain or if the ground is wet.
To use diatomaceous earth effectively, find an active fire ant mound and apply a generous amount of powder to it.
You can also put some out around your house as a perimeter treatment. Reapply after heavy rains.
Though it is not as persistent as most of the pesticides discussed above, it is extremely safe for both people and animals, though it will affect other insects just the same as the ants.
If you want to try a sure killer that isn’t a toxic chemical, put some diatomaceous earth to work for you.
7. Use Dish Soap
Dish soap is one of those “kill fire ants with one weird trick” kind of methods, but it actually, really works.
In fact, it kills by a similar principle to the diatomaceous earth just above. Compounds in the soap that make it great at fighting grease also make it great at degrading the waxy coating on the exoskeletons of insects.
When they get covered in dish soap, fire ants will eventually die from dehydration after they lose the ability to retain moisture.
To use dish soap to kill fire ants, mix up a solution of one part dish soap to three parts water and pour it into a spray bottle.
Find an active mound and drench it with soapy water. You want it soaking wet but also sudsy. Try to get a little moat going. The ants will try to escape the suds but if they get good and wet they will die.
This is a method with big pros and big cons. The best thing it has going for it is that it is truly as harmless as it gets for people and animals- it is just soapy water!
The bad news is it is highly limited in its insect-killing potential, particularly resilient, colonial insects like ants.
It only works if you can completely drench the nest, and once the water dries that is pretty much it. It also does not kill quickly, and unlike persistent poisons or other material methods of extermination, it has low longevity.
Still, for small problems or as a totally safe spot killer in the home, dish soap can help you get rid of fire ants without resorting to pesticides.
8. Boiling Water
This is the most medieval and also one of the most dangerous for you, but nonetheless highly lethal for ants.
The boiling water method is for direct extermination of a nest site and works exactly as you might be thinking.
All you need to do is pour a large quantity of boiling water on the nest as you would with the liquid pesticide treatment above.
Fire ants can withstand high temps, but not this high; they will literally have their innards boiled on contact, killing them utterly.
Simply pour about 3 gallons of boiling water on the nest and that will usually do it except for the very largest ones.
This technique is incredibly effective at killing everything in the nest that the water can reach, and it uses nothing but hot (very, very hot) water.
However, if you are not careful you could suffer a grisly accident. I don’t need to tell you how calamitous it would be if you spilled this much boiling water on yourself.
Now, you might be careful, you might be really careful, but what would happen if you are handling the pot and suddenly feel dozens of sharp pains all over your legs? Say, the kind inflicted by ticked-off fire ants..? You see where this is going.
Logistically, this method presents some other challenges. For one, it requires a lot of boiling water.
If you don’t have an electric kettle or another way to heat water quickly, it will be tough to get enough boiling water on the nest before the fire ants start attacking you:
- Do you heat it inside and tote it across the yard?
- Do you run an extension cord outside for an electric appliance?
- Do you use your grill?
- Do you have welding mitts or something else that will let you safely handle the hot container?
Even if you do have a way to heat the water quickly, 3 gallons is a lot to heat, carry and pour without spilling any on yourself. And as we just discussed, spilling boiling water on yourself is a great way to get a trip to the hospital.
In any case, you must wear protective clothing, particularly chaps that will protect your feet and legs from splashing.
Then you must complete the pour without getting lit up by the ants that will come charging out. There is a lot to handle, for sure.
But the upside is that you don’t need a thing except what comes out of your kitchen faucet or garden house, along with a way to heat it. Not a method for most but one that will do the job for one or two nests.
3 Methods You Definitely Should Not Try
If you have ever run a search for this topic on the internet, you have probably come across a few spectacular methods for disposing of fire ants.
Spectacular, but foolish, expensive, and inefficient. Don’t resort to any of these no matter how bad the infestation is. You have been warned!
1. Molten Metal
I’ll admit, this is a really cool way to completely eradicate a nest, and after the metal (usually aluminum) cools you have a wild-looking modern art sculpture to show off after you dig it up.
The problem is that you have to heat metal until it liquefies, and then pour it carefully into the entrance of the nest without starting a fire or savagely burning yourself. Pass!
2. Liquid Nitrogen
I get the appeal of pouring various harmful substances into a fire ant nest, I do. It is the least they deserve for all the suffering they cause.
But liquid nitrogen is expensive, difficult to handle, and not guaranteed to work. Plus, you risk frostbite if there is a mishap. Avoid, avoid, avoid!
3. Burning Them
One time-honored method for disposing of fire ant mounds in the Deep South is to burn them out.
This method is usually facilitated by pouring a quantity of gas, kerosene, lighter fluid or some other flammable liquid into the nest before lighting it and hoping for the best.
Sometimes it works. Other times you lose your eyebrows. Do you want to take the chance? If you are going to handle hazardous chemicals just go with insecticide.
Make Sure the Queen is Dead!
If you learn nothing else from this article, remember this: you have not won the war until the queen is dead! If you don’t kill the queen, she will just start another nest, or keep laying eggs, and the cycle of misery will eventually continue.
You might get a reprieve for a while if the colony is greatly diminished, or maybe the queen will relocate, but you won’t have real relief until the queen (or queens in some cases) is history.
So how do you make sure that you have killed the queen? You won’t see her since she lives deep in the bowels of the nest.
And don’t think you can just go digging to confirm the kill, either. Bad idea!
Instead, simply keep an eye on the nest. Don’t destroy it any more than you have to, and periodically check on the activity level around it.
If the queen is dead the number of ants won’t rebound over time, and will eventually dwindle away to nothing.
I personally continue treatments for at least a couple of weeks even after I am fairly confident they are done for.
I don’t want a fertile survivor getting away to start over somewhere else. Keep after them until it is truly finished, and make sure the queen is dead.
Win the War on Fire Ants
If you are dealing with a fire ant infestation, thoroughness and diligence is your key to victory.
Be prepared to put in the work, but with the right approach and the right materials, it is possible to exterminate these vicious invaders and take back your yard. With a little effort, you can win the war on fire ants for good.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.