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Where did fire ants come from?


Question Where did fire ants come from?

Answer Scientists pretty much agree that the “Roanoke Island” for red imported fire ants was Mobile, Alabama during the 1930s. They traveled as stowaways in the soil ballast of a ship from South America. Therefore, we do not have a ship's log to pinpoint the exact date of their arrival. Unlike Sir Walter Raleigh’s first colony, the fire ants didn’t get “lost.”

They entered the US through the South, but there is disagreement over the cultural origin of fire ants. They seem to have both northern and southern tendencies. Like true southerners, they love grits, hot weather and water. On the other hand, their northern nature seems to be even stronger. Their colonies are perfect examples of a workers’ union in progress (minus any strikes). Like true northerners, they also have a strong sense of centralized government. Each colony is under the control of a single queen. Lastly, the red imported fire ant has cut a path from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean with strong parallels to General Sherman. On the other hand, unlike true northerners, the fire ants seem to be migrating north instead of south.

The successful and rapid spread of fire ants in the United States is due in part to their adaptability and high reproductive potential. Fire ants primarily spread through the flights of new queens which can travel up to 12 miles a year. Most flights occur during late spring and summer, but some have been observed year-round. It is important to implement management practices during the spring.

Baits (containing insecticide) are often recommended for two reasons. Number one, they cover larger areas with very little active ingredient (if you follow the directions). Two, some of the baits are virtually nontoxic to insects and animals other than fire ants. Fire ant bait products contain extremely low amounts of chemicals. Do not use baits when the ground is wet or if it is getting ready to rain. Baits are clearly the best choice when treating large areas of real estate. Be warned that they are relatively slow acting. They may take 2 to 8 weeks to kill a fire ant colony. Examples of baits include Amdro, Come and Get It and Justice.

Individual mound treatments work quickly. However, if the queen escapes your attack, then she starts a new mound nearby. There are many products on the market which work. The quickest and easiest to apply are the powders that don't require water. Two examples of these insecticides include Orthene 75 S (stinky) and Bayer's Fire Ant Killer (not stinky). The stinky nature of Orthene helps to remind some folks that they are dealing with a pesticide and not baby powder. Treat all pesticides with the respect that their label requires.

For more control info, visit If you have any questions about pesticides, then call me at 910-893-7533 or email me at

We now have the same attitude toward fire ants that the Indians had toward early European settlers – how do we get rid of them aggravating rascals before they take over. The outcome will probably be the same in both cases.

Gary L. Pierce

Horticulture Extension Agent

Harnett County

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