Fire ants a growing problem

Published 1:58 pm Sunday, January 3, 2010

Staff Writer

The year just ended, 2009, may have been a bad year for the economy, employment opportunities and home sales, but it was a “good” year for one thing — fire ants, according to the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service.
Because of abundant rainfall during 2009, fire ants thrived in Beaufort County that year, according to Tanya S. Weyhrauch, a horticulture agent with Beaufort County’s Cooperative Extension Service.
“Because they are a tropical species, fire ants reproduce better when there is a lot of rain,” she said. “And between the spring and the fall, we had a lot of rain.”
Eastern North Carolina received more than 50 inches of rain in 2009, following two years of drought and near-drought conditions according to the National Weather Service in Newport.
Rainfall is crucial to fire-ant reproduction, Weyhrauch said.
“The reproductive response comes after rainfall,” she said. “Fire ants mate one to (several) days after a rainfall.”
A female fire ant lays from 800 to 3,000 eggs per day, she said.
“That’s a lot of ants per day,” Weyhrauch said.
There’s more bad news.
Unlike mosquitoes and some other worrisome insects, fire ants, also known as red imported fire ants, don’t die back when the weather turns cold. They just burrow deeper into the ground, and their mounds flatten out, making them more difficult for people to see — and avoid, Weyhrauch said.
Natives of Brazil, fire ants first appeared in the United States in Alabama in the 1930s. They have been on the move ever since. Today, fire ants are found in nine southern states, including the southeastern third of North Carolina.
A typical fire ant colony produces large mounds — some can reach nearly 16 inches in height — in sunny areas in loose soil. The colony feeds mostly on young plants, seeds, and sometimes crickets. Fire ants can attack and kill young birds, turtles and other small animals that share their habitat.
Fire ants bite to get a grip. Then, they sting and inject a toxic venom. For humans, this is a painful sting. It’s a sensation similar to what one feels when burned by fire — hence the name fire ant — and the after-effects of the sting can cause serious health problems for sensitive individuals.
Weyhrauch said the best way to get rid of fire ants is to use the two-pronged approach of spreading fire-ant bait over a wide area near the mound, followed by application of a contact insecticide.
The local Cooperative Extension Service will offer classes in fire-ant eradication in the spring.
Information on fire-ant management is available at and at