Fire ants in Texas: Where did they come from and how can they be stopped?

June 24, 2020

As fire ants continue their invasion, what can Texans do to slow their spread?

Imported red fire ants in Texas.

If you've lived in Texas for any length of time, you're probably familiar with fire ants. They're simply everywhere, but that wasn't always the case. So where do fire ants come from and how did they become such a problem in Texas? More importantly, what can you do to stop them? Today, we'll answer these burning questions, so read on!

Why are fire ants such a problem in Texas?

Texas is home to a wide variety of native ants, from the large and industrious carpenter ants to the tiny, pesky sugar ants. But despite the diversity of native ant species, fire ants can't be counted among them - they're invasive. In order to understand the fire ant problem in Texas, it's important to first know where they came from.

Where are fire ants from and how did they get here?

Fire ants require warm, moist habitats to thrive. For the majority of the species' existence, they found those conditions in South America, where they are native. However, around 1930 they made the long journey to a port in Mobile, Alabama, likely within soil shipments. Since then, they have marched ever forward into much of the southern United States, where they have established a permanent foothold. 

Since their arrival in Texas in the 1950s, they have continued to spread in all directions. They can be found as far west as New Mexico, but ceased migrating north somewhere in Oklahoma where freezing conditions become too severe for them to establish a strong foothold. 

Today, they have claimed much of Texas, only slowing down in more dry climates. They can be seen almost everywhere, from suburban yards to sprawling fields and pastures - even within our beloved bluebonnet fields

How do fire ants impact Texas' environment?

Like wild hogs and nutria, imported fire ants are an incredibly problematic invasive species. Since their introduction, they have not only pressed native ant species out of their habitats, but have made it difficult for many other native animals to survive. 

Because imported fire ants are so aggressive, Texas animals, like the horned lizard, have seen their numbers drastically reduced. Songbirds, especially ground nesting birds like killdeer, have also suffered the stings of these tiny insects. They can even be dangerous to the young of larger animals, like deer and cattle, which are particularly vulnerable as infants.

Beyond the damage done to Texas' wildlife, imported fire ants have a significant negative economic impact, too. In fact, they cause an estimated $6 billion in damages each year nationwide and $1 billion in Texas. Not only do they threaten cattle and livestock, they have a strange affinity for electric systems, such as street lights, which they frequently cause to short-circuit. They can ruin farmland, farm equipment, and even golf courses. 

How dangerous are fire ants?

Fire ants get their menacing name from their painful sting. While you may have heard it referred to as a bite, their burning venom comes from a stinger, much like a wasp or bee. With their powerful jaws, they latch on to their victims for stability before jabbing down with their stinger, injecting a toxin known as solenopsin

The result is quite painful, and typically leaves behind small red welts and blisters with an itching, burning sensation. Although a single sting is relatively harmless, fire ants are known for attacking in groups, swarming their victims and stinging dozens, if not hundreds of times. 

That having been said, fire ant stings and attacks are rarely life-threatening to humans. However, young children, people with an allergy to the toxin, and people with compromised immune systems can have far more severe reactions to multiple stings. 

In the event of a fire ant sting, you can ice the affected area, take antihistamines, and apply hydrocortisone cream to alleviate itching and burning. If the reaction seems more severe than normal, or if you have excessive swelling or trouble breathing, seek medical attention immediately. 

How can we get rid of fire ants in Texas?

Unfortunately, because of their biology and their apparent love for our environment, fire ants are probably a permanent fixture in Texas' ecosystem. They have simply spread too quickly across to great an area for any known method to eradicate them completely. However, there are plenty of ways you can control them in smaller areas, such as your yard.

How to tell if you have a fire ant problem

The first step to solving any problem is identification. So how do you know if you have a fire ant problem? If you've lived in Texas for any period of time, you are probably a natural at identifying their mounds. However, there are a few tell-tale signs you can look for when trying to spot a fire ant infestation. 

While fire ants spend much of their time in tunnels beneath the ground, they often build mounds above ground when it becomes too moist. After heavy rains, you can see their work: large dome-like piles of loose dirt. While most of them are only a few inches tall, they can often grow larger than 18 inches!

If you are unfortunate enough to disturb their nests, you'll see thousands of red and/or black ants, around 1/8" to 1/4" long. You may also see hundreds of little white globs, which are either eggs or larvae. They will then spread outward, often climbing up twigs and blades of grass, searching for the offending intruder. While this is typical behavior for fire ants, there are few native Texas species that will angrily climb vertical surfaces. 

The Texas Two-Step fire ant control method

While there is no method of fire ant removal that is 100% effective, there are a number of tactics at our disposal. The "Texas Two-Step" is one such method, and comes at the recommendation of the Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project.

The first step involves spreading, or "broadcasting," bait once or twice a year. These small granules settle on the ground below grass and are collected by the foraging ants. The toxic pellets are then brought into the nest and distributed to the colony (and hopefully the queen) for consumption. Because bait is collected and brought into the mound, little of the substance remains elsewhere, making it a fairly safe method. However, using bait takes time, which is why it is most effective when paired with step two. 

Step two involves simply targeting individual mounds in problem areas with more direct treatments, such as dusts, sprays, or other insecticides. The persistent combination of these two steps has been shown to effectively reduce fire ant populations in small areas. 

Experts recommend taking steps against fire ants during the fall months, such as late August through October. Fire ants tend to slow their foraging activities during the colder winter months, and so dispersing bait during that time won't be as effective. 

What fire ant removal products are safe to use?

As with most pest control methods, there are a variety of options, which all have their own risks associated. Try to use insecticides that are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as they are generally safer to use and will have explicit instructions for safe use. Because there are so many different products, it is important to read the safety instructions for each of them before application. 

As a general rule, dust and granule pesticides tend to remain on surfaces longer, which means they are more likely to come in contact with pets or children. For this reason, drenches may be a safer method to treat mounds. However, pets and children should still be kept away from affected areas in accordance with individual product instructions. Drenches may also be dangerous to apply near water sources, so make sure to follow the directions given. 

If you're uncomfortable with using chemicals to fight fire ants, some research has shown that simply dousing a mound with hot water can be effective! Carefully dumping about 3 gallons of very hot onto the nest in question can go a long way to destroying the colony, but it certainly isn't effective all of the time. Again, be very careful if you decide to give this a try, and be aware that you will probably also kill any grass in the immediate area, too. 

A mound of imported red fire ants in Texas

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Read more: Fire ants aren't the only thing lurking in your yard! Read our blog and learn all about snake safety in Texas!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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