Revisited: Death to the fire ants!

Now I am become Shiva — destroyer of worlds.

I did what I thought would be the last bit of lawn maintenance for the season this past weekend — a little mowing, a little raking, then free Sundays for the next six months. Instead, I came to find that my back yard was infested with fire ants, and that they have plans that differ significantly from mine.

The fire ant, an invasive pest found primarily in the South, came to the U.S. in the early 1900s. It is one of a variety of stinging ants found worldwide. The queen and her colony form reddish mounds of dirt that can reach heights up to 15 inches. The venom of the sting causes a burning pain, pustules and can even lead to anaphylactic shock in sensitive individuals. They have a pedicel with two nodes and an unarmed propodium, both of which sound really handy. They often attack small animals, and can kill then.

Fortunately, I’m a large animal, so for me they represented more of a nuisance than anything. As I pushed my mower up and down the yard, I had to be on guard for the domed hills that each housed hundreds of thousands of the insects, any one of which could scramble onto my shoe and threaten my life. I could run over the smaller mounds with the mower, though I doubted it would inflict much damage beyond a lacerated thorax or two. The bigger piles would clog the cutting mechanism and had to be avoided.

When I finished the mowing, I was left with a yard dotted with uncut clumps of grass and dirt. I looked closely at one, to learn a little more about the ants and their culture, so I’d be better equipped to return later and obliterate their carefully planned society.

Ants have long been admired for their strength, their work ethic and their intelligence. Americans could learn a lot from their industrious nature (specifically, how to overrun a country, then sting and consume the locals). The pie-sized circle of dirt I examined was quiet at first glance, at least till I jabbed it with a stick, and then it came to life. Teeming thousands of the tiny beasts instantly began looking for the intruder. When they saw it was a human, I noticed a look on their comically small faces that combined both fear and loathing. They were scared of what I might do, but also resented the fact that I resided in a comfortable brick home while they lived in dirt.

I knew I had to remove them from the property, and individually transporting each one to some distant ant farm just didn’t seem practical. I would have to rain death down upon them. But what form should the execution take?

A few years ago, I had a similar problem, and had limited success putting my teenage son and his best friend on the case. They had just helped me finish clearing leaves with the new high-powered blower I had purchased, and came up with what in hindsight was a poorly conceived plan: aiming a jet of compressed air directly at the anthill. True, it excavated a deep, ant-less hole where the colony had previously been. However, in the process, it flung countless drones and workers all over them, which none of the parties involved appreciated. I had heard that toothpaste could be a good makeshift antidote, but the boys were too agitated to consider how they would brush each individual ant mandible, not to mention the difficulties of flossing.

So if mowing them doesn’t work, and blowing them doesn’t work, I figured my next best option was poison. I found an insecticide formulated specifically for fire ants, and set out to wreak my vengeance. The instructions called for sprinkling four tablespoons of the product in a circle around each mound, but that just didn’t make sense, especially the part about the four tablespoons (I’m killing ants, not baking a cake). So I took a styrofoam coffee cup, filled it with the yellow flakes and poured it directly on the ants. I then added some water, either to soothe their pain or soak the poison deeper into the nest, I’m not sure which.

You could tell they weren’t happy about this turn of events, but too bad for them. At least it’s more humane than what they would face from their only natural predator, the phoridae. This is a small, hump-backed fly that doesn’t so much prey on fire ants as it does mock them in a merciless and fatal fashion. These flies lay eggs in the thorax of the ant, then the larvae migrate to the head and eat it from the inside out. After about two weeks, they dissolve the membrane that attaches the head to the ant’s body, causing the head to fall off. (Ouch!) The young fly then lives in the head for another two weeks before emerging. In the NFL, that would be called taunting, and would merit a personal foul penalty.

By the time I made my way all around the yard, I began to feel a twinge of remorse. I’ve never been one to callously destroy inconvenient forms of life. I’m not into karma or anything like that; it’s just that I’d rather trap a stray spider between a piece of mail and a cup and move him outside than risk a nasty stain in the carpet. So when I came to the last colony, instead of poison I decided to give them the core of the apple I had just finished. I’m not sure that fruit is part of their diet, though fiber is good for almost everybody. I did read that they like plants, seeds and sometimes crickets, and an apple seemed better than the only other thing I had, a cough drop.

The poison is supposed to work within 48 hours of application, so I’ll be checking back later this week to see how many millions of God’s beloved creatures I have successfully terminated. I also want to see what happens to the apple.

Eat death, ants. Or have an apple instead
Eat death, ants. Or have an apple instead

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6 Responses to “Revisited: Death to the fire ants!”

  1. Jumping in Mud Puddles Says:

    Great post! How funny to leave an apple for the last colony. I hate killing things also. I used to give my backyard groundhog a bunch of food by his den right before hibernation time so he could get a good rest over the

  2. fakename2 Says:

    Although I would have expected nothing less of an erudite person such as yourself, I am so pleased to see that you have correctly identified the problematic part of the fire ant anatomy. People KILL me talking about “fire ant bites”. No, no, no, you blithering idiot! The problem is at the other end of the ant! One person told me it was just a figure of speech. No, it isn’t! It’s the completely WRONG WORD! It’s like saying “cell phone” when you mean “television”! And I guess “nucular” is a figure of speech too? There now. I feel ever so much better.

  3. The Dude Says:

    I definitely remember the leaf-blower::ant-destroyer device. The horror…the horror.

  4. Ignorethebucklesonmyjacket Says:

    This stuff doesn’t work on in-laws…I hope you have better luck with the ants.

    Instead of an apple, I just gave my Mother-In-Law a fruit cake.

  5. jedwardswright Says:

    Naturally, Mother Hen applauds your compassion toward all creatures great and small! (Next logical move — become a vegetarian!)
    On the other wing, fire ants are nasty, so she doesn’t mind that much that you poisoned the evil little beggars.
    It is safe to say that MH is conflicted on this issue as well. She thinks that there is therapy for that.

  6. planetross Says:

    “The Naked Jungle is a 1954 film directed by Byron Haskin, and starring Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker. Telling the story of an attack of army ants on a Peruvian cocoa plantation, it was based on the short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson.”

    I see similarities where others don’t. … that apple could cause some problems in the future.

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