Three blocks from my garden, I can stand at the edge of Mobile Bay and see the shipping channel way off to the southwest — the very route that a cargo ship from South America took on a balmy day in the 1920s, its crew unaware that the soil they carried as ballast was infested with red fire ants. The ants loved everything about Alabama: warm temperatures, abundant food supplies, lots of moisture — and best of all, the predator species who control fire ant populations had missed the boat and were still back home in the Southern Hemisphere.
Now they range from Texas to Maryland, pushing ever farther into the northern states as winters turn milder. And, despite a few redeeming qualities — they eat cockroach eggs, for example — fire ants are bad news for your garden. Their mounds are sprawling and destructive, they will damage or consume a surprising assortment of soft-fleshed vegetables, and a busy colony can wipe out beneficial insects (and lizards and even small birds) with speedy efficiency. They can also sting the daylights out of you in a synchronized attack, using a pheromone signal to coordinate dozens of ants who swarm up your arm or leg, simultaneously bite to get a grip and then use their stingers to deliver a burning dose of toxic venom. Recent studies of the active ingredient in that venom reveal some antibiotic and anti-HIV qualities, but I have not found much comfort in that as I frantically scramble for the garden hose to rinse off two dozen stinging fire ants.
After throwing an arsenal of chemical insecticides at the ever-growing fire ant population over the years, and only succeeding in wiping out large populations of competitive ant species to give fire ants even better odds in their quest for world domination, we humans have given up on eradication. County extension services now advise gardeners on fire ant management. For people like me, who shudder at the prospect of using chemical ant baits anywhere near the organic veggie patch, there is a tiny glimmer of hope in the gradual rise of the phorid fly. As tiny as the nostril on a Lincoln penny, it has a life cycle like a Stephen King novel: the little fly hovers above a fire ant and lays a microscopic egg in the ant’s shiny brown thorax. When the fly larvae hatches, it dines awhile on non-vital ant innards and then migrates to its ultimate destination, the ant’s head. Now the ant’s body is no longer useful to the larva, so it releases an enzyme which dissolves the neck membrane and makes the ant’s head fall off. Yikes. Compared to the fate of being decapitated by a hungry parasite, my own fire ant management technique seems almost humane.
I invite my fire ants to join me for tea. Well, actually, they don’t get much past the steeping part. Decades ago, when I read that boiling water could be used as an effective ant control, I started carrying my steaming tea kettle out into the garden and poured its contents over fire ant mounds with consistently good results. A medium-sized mound in the garden takes about a gallon and a half (three large tea kettles) and I have discovered that it’s not necessary to dig beneath the surface or to drench everything that moves — you are not killing the colony, which lies mostly well below the surface, but you are providing them with a powerful incentive to move away. And they do. I have poured boiling water into cracks in walkways, along the edges of raised beds and at the foundation line of fire-ant-infested sheds and most often, they are gone within two days. Sometimes a second tea party is needed. Also, remember that boiling water will kill garden plants and beneficial insects, so pour with discretion.
And then have a nice cup of Earl Grey.