Entomologist testing puts bite on many ‘home’ fire ant treatments

AUSTIN – Resourceful individuals have tried many  different “home” treatments for fire ant control, but unfortunately lots of them simply don’t pass the science test, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service entomologist.

Wizzie Brown, integrated pest management specialist for AgriLife Extension in Travis County, has been putting alternative, non-chemical means of fire ant management to the test for the past few years. She now has collected objective, science-based data to either support or reject claims about the efficacy of some of these proposed home treatments.

“I’ve previously tested whether club soda was an effective means of control after getting inquiries from people who had read about this on the Internet,” Brown said. “I also started looking into whether or not other home remedies I’d been told about had any basis in scientific fact as fire ant treatments.”

Brown said her most recent trials dealt with anecdotal information that coffee grounds could be used as a treatment.

“Many gardeners utilize recycled coffee grounds from commercial operations or grounds from their own coffee brewing in their garden for composting,” Brown said. “And since gardeners tend to be rather resourceful, some have tried using coffee grounds for other purposes, including managing red imported fire ant mounds.”

In 2010, Brown tested coffee grounds obtained from the Starbucks “Grounds for Your Garden” program as an individual mound treatment for fire ants. She spread a cup of used grounds over a test mound and noted fire ant activity in and around the mound several times over a 30-day period.

“The home remedy of spreading one cup of used coffee grounds over a fire ant mound failed to kill the fire ants,” she said. “The amount of activity after applying the grounds was the same as on the control mounds receiving no treatment.”

Brown said while coffee grounds make for good composting material, her research showed that when put to the test, they are simply ineffective toward killing fire ants.

“It would be nice to have a handy way to dispose of coffee grounds awhile simultaneously killing fire ants,” she said, “but in this case, it just didn’t pan out.”

Brown also recently tested whether ground cinnamon may be an effective treatment.

“I also received inquiries from Travis County residents and had seen on several Internet sites that ground cinnamon was being touted as a useful fire ant control method,” she said.

Brown established a similar methodology to test the cinnamon, sprinkling one tablespoon over the mound as an individual treatment, noting ant activity several times over a one-month period.

“I applied the ground cinnamon the same way one would apply a pesticide dust labeled for control,” she said.

As with the coffee grounds, Brown compared activity on the treated mound with untreated control-mound activity.

“In this instance, it turned out that there was actually more fire ant activity in the treated mound than the untreated control,” she said.

This spring, Brown will be investigating the efficacy of two other home treatments —  oak ash and cayenne pepper.

“These are two other treatments that have been brought to my attention as possible alternatives to commercial pesticides,” she said. “It should be interesting to find out whether or not science supports their usefulness as a method of fire ant control.”

In 2009, Brown tested club soda as “an environmentally friendly cure for fire ants,” as was stated on a gardening website.

“The site suggested the reader pour two cups of club soda directly onto the center of a fire ant mound to control the colony,” Brown said. “This message found its way into gardening forums and was picked up by media – all without any scientific testing to back it up.”

Brown said the site claimed the carbon dioxide in the soda would displace the oxygen and suffocate the ants, including the queen, killing the entire colony within about 48 hours.

“It also claimed that the club soda would leave no toxic residue, would not contaminate ground water and would not indiscriminately kill other insects or harm pets,” she said. “Pretty much all that part was true, but what wasn’t true was that it would be effective in killing fire ants, unless of course you happen to drown a few in the process.”

Brown said her observations and data obtained from the trial showed there was no evidence of  fire ant  control resulting from pouring club soda onto a mound.

“It did not lead to the ants dying a horrendous death,” she said. “However, it did produce lots of impressive bubbling action.”

Brown said results of the club soda field trial and other home treatments have been or will be posted on the Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project website at http://fireant.tamu.edu.

She added that the site also shows results of other home remedy field tests by herself and other AgriLife Extension and Texas AgriLife Research ntegrated pest management experts. Other home remedies for fire ant control that have been or will be tested  by agency entomologists include aspartame, molasses, Epsom salts, orange juice and cola.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about home fire ant control out there,” Brown said. “And while it’s important to be environmentally responsible and minimize the use of chemicals that may also kill beneficial insects, harm pets or possibly enter the water table, the thoughtful, careful use of commercial pesticides specifically labeled for control is probably still your best defense against them.”

Brown and other AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialists in major urban areas of the state also conduct community-wide control efforts. More information on who to contact about these efforts also can be found on the Texas fire ant project website

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