Organizing a Community-Wide Fire Ant Suppression Program

Ouch! The stinging effects of the imported fire ant in Texas can be felt in economic as well as health terms. No one knows the economic losses caused by the fire ant in Texas, but a recent estimate, based on the best available information, was $300 million annually. Texans are also spending hundreds of millions annually to control fire ants in their yards and pastures.

Fire ants especially cause problems for cities and towns. It’s estimated that homeowners in urban areas spend around $10.5 million a year on controlling fire ants in their lawns, gardens, and homes. They spend an estimated $7.9 million annually on medical treatments due to fire ant stings. Fire ants also result in reduced property values, structural damage, and contaminated water systems due to pesticide overuse or misuse. Fire ants also infest electrical equipment, such as air conditioners, traffic boxes, airport runway lights, causing an estimated $11.2 million in damages annually. Stinging incidents can also result in costly tort liability claims. Fire ants can also discourage tourism and recreational activities.

A Grassroots Effort to Control Fire Ants

Fire ant management programs have been widely adopted and are successful in many situations. However, because they are usually implemented by individual landowners and managers, re-infestation from nearby untreated areas generally occurs. Most baits on the market today came from earlier efforts to develop products suitable for area-wide treatment programs, and are best suited for large-scale use.

Despite great public concern, neither the state nor federal government is currently planning or funding any large-scale fire ant treatment programs. It is up to local organizations to decide on the best IPM strategy for a particular situation. With the help of experts in the field, any group can organize an effective fire ant suppression program with or without the help of a governmental agency.

The “Two-Step Method” for home lawns and other ornamental turf areas is the method best suited for area-wide treatment. Homeowners and land managers may still need to treat a few mounds (“step two”) between large-scale bait treatments, but far fewer than if no bait had been applied.

Matching the Program to Your Resources and Needs

There are many ways people can work together to conduct community-wide fire ant suppression programs.

Coordinating neighborhood treatment. Homeowners can coordinate treatment of their entire neighborhood each year, usually once in the fall and once in the spring. Each homeowner should receive instructions on: 1) appropriate fire ant bait products to purchase; 2) how to properly broadcast a bait; and 3) treatment date(s). Each homeowner is expected to make his own applications or arrange for treatment on the designated treatment date(s). Contingency dates should be scheduled in case rain is forecast or the temperature is less than 65 or greater than 95 degrees F on the primary treatment date.

Working through homeowner associations. Homeowner associations might contract with a local commercial applicator to broadcast fire ant bait over the entire subdivision periodically, including common areas, medians and other community property in the area. They should be asked to evaluate the area and apply minor touch-up treatments as needed.

Working through city and county government. With enough citizen support, local governments can establish fire ant control programs that both treat public areas and perhaps allow homeowners to have their properties treated for an additional fee. The municipal or county government could contract with a commercial pest control applicator. Advertising should encourage entire blocks or neighborhoods to sign up, because the larger the area treated, the longer lasting the control. Treatments would include annual broadcast applications of a fire ant bait, follow-up checks and possibly individual mound treatments as needed. The fee paid by individual landowners could pay for the program.

It might be possible for a city government to coordinate the aerial application of a fire ant bait to an entire town. Smaller areas where baits can’t be applied, such as swimming pools and vegetable gardens, would have to be covered during application. Widespread citizen support would be essential. The aerial applicators contracted by the city would have to agree to modify equipment to apply the recommended amount of bait per acre, heed the FFA flying height over populated areas, and avoid bodies of water and agricultural areas where food is produced. Many volunteers would be needed to successfully coordinate and implement this program.

Planning to Ensure Success

Determine treatment areas. Some localized areas, even within heavily-infested regions, have little or no fire ant infestation. Surveys should be conducted to determine if the number of red imported fire ant mounds is high enough to justify treatment.

Respect individual differences. Sensitivity to fire ants and to the use of insecticides varies dramatically from person to person. Some individuals might not want to participate in a control program because they believe fire ants are not a problem and serve useful purposes, or because they are opposed to using insecticides, natural or otherwise, on their property. At the other extreme are individuals who want no fire ants on their property and don’t care about the methods used to achieve that goal. Participation in an community-wide program should be voluntary or decided upon through a democratic process.

Promote education and recognize limitations. The strengths and limitations of the program should be acknowledged. For instance, a broadcast bait will eliminate most (usually 90 to 95 percent) of the fire ant mounds in an area temporarily (6 to 18 months). It will not eradicate them permanently. The speed at which suppression will occur is rather slow. Periodic, coordinated reapplication will be necessary to maintain control. Between broadcast treatments, some individual colonies may occur that require individual mound treatment. Landowners whose property borders untreated areas such as agricultural lands, water edges, flood plains and wilderness will likely have continuous migration of ant colonies onto their properties.

Follow pesticide laws and regulations. The Structural Pest Control (SPC) Board regulates the commercial use of insecticides in urban environments. SPC laws mandate that anyone applying insecticides for a fee be licensed by the Board and insured. Although you can apply insecticides on your own property, you can not treat other yards in the neighborhood without a license.

Read and retain the insecticide product label. Those who use insecticides must keep the label with the product. Never purchase a large quantity of insecticide and re-package, divide, or store it in a container without the label. Always follow the directions on the product’s label.

Take bids and review credentials. Before contracting with a commercial applicator company or private pest control operator, get several bids based on the specific services you require. These firms must be licensed by the SPC Board.

For More Information

For more information about using the control methods recommended for community-wide fire ant management programs, contact your county Extension office. Your county Extension office can also answer any other questions about controlling fire ants.

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