It’s been rumored that the phrase “ants in your pants” was originated by the late Hugh S. Johnson, a former general for the United States Army. The common idiom refers to someone who appears jumpy or restless, and I like to think that Johnson was imagining fire ants in particular when he first started using it. Johnson’s own nickname was “Iron Pants”; perhaps he had a nasty encounter with fire ants and afterward insisted upon wearing pants made of iron to protect his nethers from future instances of ants in his pants. Anyone who has been bitten by a fire ant can surely imagine that even a tough Army general could quickly be taken down if a swarm of these vindictive creatures somehow made him their target.
There are several species of fire ants and most of these aggressive attackers are eager to take on a fight when disturbed, even if their opponent is a much-larger animal or human. Aside from their painful bites, fire ants can also wreak havoc by eating crops and destroying lawns and gardens. These pervasive pests can quickly spread across large areas and they are notoriously difficult to kill. While there is no sure-fire way to totally eliminate fire ants, there are steps you can take to stop them from taking over your property and definitely keep them out of your pants.
Controlling the Most Common Fire Ant Species
To get rid of European fire ants, place boric acid baits near their nests. Although native to northern Europe and Asia, European fire ants have made their way to northeastern United States and Canada. They are typically a reddish-brown color and the workers are approximately 4-5 millimeters long, with the queens being slightly larger. European fire ants hide their nests in the moist soil underneath rocks, wood and other debris (including in lawns and gardens), and numerous nests can be found in a small area. These testy ants will attack anything or anyone that touches their nest, and their stings result in painful red welts. European fire ants are difficult to control, so you must be aggressive when it comes to baiting. Most commercial pesticides do not kill them, but studies have shown that baits containing the active ingredient boric acid work by damaging the ants’ intestinal tract. Boric acid can be purchased at supermarkets or hardware stores, and it is often sold in a powder form. Here is a recipe for boric acid bait:
- 1/8 teaspoon of 1% boric acid
- 1 tablespoon corn syrup (to attract the ants)
First, read and understand the safety instructions on the boric acid’s label. Then mix together the boric acid and corn syrup. Form a solution by adding water (1 part bait mixture to 2 parts water). Place the solution in bait containers (be sure to label the containers as “ant bait”). Place the containers around the exterior of your home, particularly in shady areas, near trees and shrubbery, and in spots where ants have been seen.
To get rid of red imported fire ants, treat the entire yard with baits twice a year. Red imported fire ants, or RIFA, are one of the most aggressive and destructive ant species. They are primarily found in southern climates, including in the United States, and these resilient pests build their dome-shaped mounds almost anywhere — in wet or dry conditions, open fields, next to buildings, sidewalk cracks, etc. These omnivores also multiply quickly, with as many as 300 mounds to a single acre. The workers are 2 to 6 millimeters long and a dark reddish-brown color with a shiny black abdomen. If an animal or human steps on a RIFA mound, the ants will swarm together to attack the culprit. Their painful stings cause pus-filled blisters, and can even kill small animals. Scientists have yet to discover a way to eliminate RIFA for the long term. However, treating the entire yard or property (rather than individual mounds) with an ant-killing insecticide bait can have short-term success. There are a number of products that can be effective, but the best options contain both slow- and fast-acting ingredients (Extinguish Plus and Amdro Fire Strike are recommended products). If you have a large area to treat, consider using a hand-held push spreader. After you have treated the yard, look for new mounds that have sprung up in the baited areas and treat them individually. Apply baits to the entire yard twice a year.
To get rid of southern fire ants, use slow-acting granular baits containing hydramethylnon or fipronil. Southern fire ants (also known as California fire ants and cotton ants) are found in the southern parts of the United States from the Carolinas to California. Southern fire ants will attack if their nest is threatened, though they tend to be less aggressive and their sting less painful than that of their sister species, the red imported fire ant. Southern fire ants feast on oily meats, nuts, other pests and sweet foods like honeydew. They build their crater-shaped mounds in warm and moist areas of loose soil, as well as under rocks and wood, or indoors in crawl spaces and under carpets. Southern fire ants have large colonies with up to 10,000 ants and multiple queens per colony. The workers are 1.6 to 5.8 millimeters long and have a yellowish-orange head and thorax, black abdomen and a body covered in golden hairs. To eliminate southern fire ants, it is best to place baits containing hydramethylnon and fipronil over the entire infested area, though individual mounds can be treated as well. Use a slow-acting granular bait so that the ants won’t die before going back to their nests. Recommended products include Maxforce Insect Bait and Combat. Be patient — it can take several weeks before the baits yield results.
To get rid of little fire ants, use slow-acting granular baits containing hydramethylnon or pyriproxfen. Little fire ants (also known as electric ants) may be tiny, but their stings pack a powerful punch. These ants live in tropical regions, including Florida and Hawaii. Unlike other species of fire ants, little fire ants are slow moving and not aggressive. However, they will sting when pressed against the skin (such as when swatted or pressed between clothing and skin), and their stings cause burning, painful welts that can itch for several days. The workers are only 1.5 millimeters long and they are a light brown or golden color. These pervasive pests form large colonies, which include several queens, and they nest just about anywhere where there is moisture and shelter, including in and around plants, in cracks and crevices, and under debris. They are omnivorous, but they are especially fond of honeydew, seeds and flowers. They can also be found indoors in bedding, clothing or furniture and feeding on peanut butter, meats and juices. Little fire ants are difficult to eradicate completely, but it is relatively easy to kill off individual colonies. To do so, place slow-acting granular baits containing hydramethylnon (such as Siege Pro or Amdro Pro) or pyriproxfen (Esteem Ant Bait) near their nests. If the baits are successful, the colonies should die within two weeks. However, to kill off entire infestations you must frequently reapply baits during dry weather.
Tips for Using Ant Baits
- Always read the product’s label before using and follow its directions.
- Apply baits in dry weather; you may need to reapply after heavy rain.
- Place the baits near the ants’ nests, but not directly on top of them.
- Granular baits are typically best, but gel baits can be injected into cracks or places where larger baits will not work.
- Place baits in the corners of the exterior of your home and property, paying close attention to shaded areas, gardens, shrubbery and spots where ants have been observed.
- Try to avoid placing baits indoors since they sometimes end up attracting more ants.
- If you must use baits indoors, be sure to keep them out of the reach of children and pets.
How to Prevent Fire Ants from Invading Your Property
Schedule a neighborhood-wide “fire ant funeral.” Fire ants multiply quickly and can infest a large area in a short period. Once fire ants have been spotted in your neighborhood, it is only a matter of time before they will make their way into your lawn as well. The best way to kill fire ants and prevent reinfestation is through wide-scale eradication efforts. Talk to your neighbors or homeowners’ association about coordinating a weekend in which several property owners set up ant baits at the same time.
Seal any cracks or holes in your house. Fire ants, like many other pests, make their way indoors by climbing through the tiniest of cracks. Use a flexible sealant or caulking to close up any cracks, holes or gaps in your foundation, windows, floors or walls. While there is no foolproof way to keep all fire ants outside, this will at least make it harder for them to get in.
Keep your kitchen clean. Fire ants are attracted to many of our favorite foods, especially ones that are oily and sugary. Keeping your kitchen clean will help prevent ants from entering your home while foraging for food. Promptly throw out any food garbage and wipe up spills or sticky spots, and don’t let dirty dishes linger in the sink. If possible, store the majority of your food in the refrigerator or airtight containers to keep ants away.
Check for ants before bringing new plants into your home or garden. Some species of fire ants nest in or near plants and flowers. Before introducing a new plant into your home or garden, simply give it a shake and watch to see if any ants appear on the surface of the soil. Be sure to wear gloves and be careful to avoid being stung while doing this. You should also use only certified potting soil and turf that has been tested for pests or other problems.
Natural Ways to Get Rid of Fire Ants
Cream of Wheat or grits. Sprinkle uncooked Cream of Wheat or grits around the ants’ nests. The ants are attracted to the food, but once ingested, it causes their stomachs to expand until they explode and die.
Baking soda & vinegar. Liberally sprinkle baking soda over the ants’ mound. Using a long stick, poke the baking soda deep into the mound (the ants will attack if disturbed, so exercise caution when doing this). Then pour a gallon of vinegar on the mound. When the baking soda and vinegar mix, they will create a fizzy chemical reaction that will kill the ants.
Cinnamon. While it doesn’t actually kill fire ants, cinnamon does repel them. Put a thick circle of cinnamon around the ants’ nest and liberally sprinkle the spice on top of the mound to drive the ants farther into the ground and away from food sources. If you have fire ants in your house, try sprinkling cinnamon near their points of entry to keep them away.
Fight fire with water. Really hot water. Scald the buggers to death by pouring two to three gallons of boiling water directly on the ants’ mound. You may have to do this a few times before you successfully assassinate the queen. And beware — boiling water can also kill grass and vegetation.