Sustainable gardeners in the Southern regions of the United States are in danger every day because of the nasty red imported fire ant (RIFA) invasion.
These invaders have no natural enemies outside their native habitat, so imported red fire ants spread like wild fire.
Gardeners must be aware of the potential dangers.
For instance, who would suspect the sustainable practice of using mulch to keep gardens moist and weed free has a downside when it comes to the fire ant problem?
Hiding under all that wonderful mulch, though, can be a nest of problems. This is but one example of the RIFA dangers in the garden.
No gardener can be considered safe without taking precautions.
Red Imported Fire Ants, What’s Being Done?
For now, caution and sustainable integrated pest management with chemical controls are what gardeners can do to fight the menace. Promising scientific efforts are underway to find safe biological controls. There is hope for more effective measures for the future.
These studies, sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture started in Argentina in 1987 and continue today. The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and various universities are experimenting with two different phorid flies as well as microsporidian protozoa, both native and introduced, but the research is not concluded.
Current thinking by some scientists is that for the red imported fire ant the only sustainable method of destruction lie in biological controls.
The Fly vs. the Ant -All the Gory Details
Parasitoid Phorid flies pierce the body of a red fire ant and lay an egg. The larva hatches and works its way up to the head of the fire ant and begins digesting the brain.
The red fire ant continues about its business for about 3 weeks, until the larva decapitates the ant and hatches out of the head.
The phorid flies have been confined to the laboratory for three years prior to release. This is a safety measure meant to confirm that red imported fire ants are the only kinds of ants or other organisms a phorid fly will destroy.
The latest phorid fly research centers around infecting the fly with a protozoan that is deadly to the ants but harmful to the phorid fly. These protozoans are found in the red imported fire ant’s native habitat. This is giving the phorid fly a double whammy effect on an ant colony.
Microsporidian protozoa have been found in South America as well as the United States that debilitate red fire ant colonies. This is a very promising method of control. There is also a virus the red imported fire ant is susceptible to that has been discovered. This RIFA killing virus is easily transmitted to uninfected colonies. Death of the entire nest is often the result.
These biological controls are not available for purchase for the home gardener as of yet. Further study is necessary to insure that they are indeed a sustainable solution for the imported red fire ant problem.
No one wants another dangerous invasive species will not make the problem worse instead of better. We welcome the caution researchers are taking in this serious scientific approach to a sustainable gardening future.
New Developments in Taiwan
In some interesting new experiments, scientists in Taiwan are training dogs to find nests and then freezing the RIFA colony with liquid nitrogen. It will be interesting to watch as this study continues, since it is a totally non-biological and non-chemical approach. It’s more like a search and destroy mission.
In Australia they have launched all-out war on the imported red fire ant and the Aussies seem to be licking the problem. Fortunately, their infestation has occurred relatively recently and they caught it before it became a country wide epidemic.
Gardeners, take heart. While it is going slowly, the research is moving along steadily. In the not too distant future, new control, biological and physical, will be available to help in your quest for a safe and sustainable garden.
Special Note: California is one of the latest invasion areas and the state is working diligently to detect and eradicate fire ants wherever they are found. If they can eradicate the red imported fire ant in Australia through constant vigilance, it can be done in California, too, and you can help.
If you live in California and find any fire ants, you are urged to call
Toll Free at 1-888-4FIREA to report their location.
Texas A & M University –
Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project
Academia Sinica, Taipei – Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) Detection Dog
Some Great Videos—
Watch the detection dog trained to find red imported fire ants in Taiwan: Taiwan Fire Ant Detection Dog (2) 2009
Here is a fire ant nest being frozen with -176 C Liquid Nitrogen:
Ferocious Fire Ants— Danger in the Grass
Red Imported Fire Ants—Your Landscape’s Hidden Electric Personality
Getting Rid of Fire Ants—What Really Works?
How to Sustainably Control Red Imported Fire Ants
What is Biointensive Integrated Pest Management?
Getting Started with Biointensive Integrated Pest Management