Here's how to get rid of fire ants in your yard
Don't get burned
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Most of us have experienced it—enjoying our time in the great outdoors when all of a sudden, ouch! You’ve been bitten, but not by just any old bug: This is a fire ant. And there's more where that came from.
While predominantly found in the Southeast, red imported fire ants are continuing to spread further north, west, and south in the U.S., according to the Texas A&M Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project. Because of this, many homeowners who have never had to deal with a fire ant infestation may face one in their own yard this year.
Fortunately for everyone who wants to get rid of fire ants in their yard, these pests can be managed and dealt with fairly easily. Robert Puckett, assistant professor and extension entomologist at Texas A&M University, says, “This is an invasive insect pest that has been intensively studied—the good news is that we really know how to manage them.”
Here’s everything you should know about how to get rid of fire ants in the yard.
What you should know about these fire ants
Red imported fire ants are in fact an invasive species, native to South America—they were accidentally introduced to the U.S. in the 1930s. Unlike other native ants, fire ants are competitive and aggressive insects that are great at building and sustaining their homes—they can even build rafts to survive floods—making them a pretty permanent nuisance in our lives.
There are two social forms of red imported fire ants in the U.S.: single queen and multiple queen forms. As the name suggests, a single queen only has one queen fire ant that the workers will follow, while “multiple queen” means more than one.
This is important to know because the rest of the ants—known as “worker ants”—will follow and feed their queen. So, if you are able to remove the queen (or queens) in your efforts, you’ll have a much easier time getting rid of the rest of the ants.
According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, only 1% of the human population will experience lethal reactions to fire ant stings. That said, many can still have severe reactions, like hives or swelling in the throat or tongue, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
Puckett says it’s important to understand your risk level toward fire ant bites to make the best decision about what fire ant treatment is best for your home.
Bring out the fire ant killer early on, if you can
If you’re looking to get a good handle on the fire ants in your yard, the experts at Texas A&M recommend starting in the fall, if possible.
Why? This is because the most ideal time to apply bait-formulated insecticides is from late August through October to allow these products to work over the course of a few weeks to yield a reduced ant population in the spring.
That being said, it’s OK if you don’t start in the fall—it’s just important to know that fire ant eradication can take weeks or even months, so getting a head start can help to clear up your yard for the spring and summer.
Use the right fire ant killer for you
When it comes to getting rid of fire ants who’ve already invaded your yard, Puckett advocates using fire ant baits.
Because of the ants’ competitive nature, baits can be highly effective. “They’re excellent at finding food resources, recruiting their nestmates to help bring that material back to the colony, and to exclude that resource to other [species of] ants who want to compete for it,” says Puckett.
By using a bait product, fire ants will perceive that as a food resource, gravitating toward it and excluding other weaker ants and insects from getting a hold of it. In short, if you're looking for how to kill fire ants, bait products are one of the most effective ways.
Bait products run the gamut from insecticide to something more organic that’s safe to use around children, pets, or your garden.
There are plenty of insecticide options that are registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and those labeled products pose minimum risk to people and the environment when applied as directed. That being said, some homeowners with children or pets, or those with environmental concerns may want to proceed with caution and choose other management options. You can find more information about pesticide usage on the EPA’s website.
Synthetic insecticides like Amdro and Extinguish are great for fairly inexpensive fire ant management. These insecticides can vary in the typical amount of time it takes to begin working on the fire ants.
There are also more organic bait products, including plant-derived treatments as well as microbial-produced insecticides. These are great options for those who don’t want to kill other insects in the process or don’t want to affect their foliage or garden.
Spinosad is an example of a non-synthetic bait ingredient—it’s a natural substance created by soil bacterium that is toxic to insects specifically, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. Over 80 EPA-registered pesticides include this ingredient, making it an effective, yet more gentle, choice.
While bait products can be highly effective, it must be used properly. Make sure to try to apply the bait when it’s between 65°F and 95°F outdoors—mid-morning or late afternoon is great. Try to apply it when you know your area isn’t likely to get rain for the next two days, as this can wash away some of your efforts.
If the ants are already on the bait within 45 to 60 minutes, the bait is working, says Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
Spot-treat mounds as they appear
Experts recommend first using a bait product to treat yards, then treating individual fire ant mounds to kill the ants directly.
You can do this with the bait product you already have. Puckett says, “The trick is to survey your property—if you have one or two mounds, there is no need for a broadcast [treatment] like we might advocate for in the fall and in areas with high densities of fire ants.”
If you don’t have a large density of fire ants in your yard, Puckett says you can treat these mounds directly with a couple of tablespoons of bait around the individual mounds rather than covering your entire yard with the product.
You can also use liquid mound drenches as a fire ant killer, which can eliminate your mound as quickly as a few hours. Just be aware these may leave a residue on the surface of your yard.
Granular drench products are another fast-acting option—sprinkle granules onto the mound, along with a couple gallons of water, and allow it to work its magic. Be sure to carefully follow the instructions on both drench and granule products.
Use hot water to kill the ants
While fire ants are resistant insects, they have their weaknesses, too. Unable to withstand extreme heat, boiling water is a threat to red ants and is another effective way to kill these insects and destroy their mound in the process.
The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension team recommends pouring 2 to 3 gallons of very hot or boiling water on the mound. Try to pour this on the mounds on a cool, sunny morning when the ants are closer to the surface of the ground.
One drawback with this method is that the hot or boiling water will kill the grass or surrounding vegetation that it is poured upon.
Physically remove the mounds
Another method of killing fire ants is by completely removing the mound itself by excavating it with a shovel, which will in turn get rid of the ant colony from your property.
“Start with a 5-gallon plastic bucket and line the interior with a film of baby powder. Then, scoop up the colony—soil and all—in the bucket,” says Puckett. “There are lateral tunnels off of where you’ve dug and now the ants are irritated.”
Allow a few minutes to let the ants coalesce at the bottom of the pit you’ve dug, then scoop them out—keep doing this until you don’t see worker ants coming out any longer. “It’s likely [at this point] that you’ve collected the brood, the queens, and the workers from the colony.”
From here, you can move the fire ants to a different open location, you can freeze the whole bucket and reclaim the soil after, or you can add boiled water to the bucket.
Don’t let up on upkeep
Like we said, fire ants are aggressive insects. Because of this, no method will be 100% effective or get rid of fire ants for good. Experts say that ants are sure to reinvade with new colonies, even as quickly as after the next rain your yard gets.
If you want to get rid of fire ants from your yard, you'll need to have the same determined spirit that they do. It’s important to keep up with your fire ant management methods and to stay consistent to keep them out of your yard for good.
If your infestation feels out of your control, you can also work with a local pest control service to determine the best action for your yard.
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