Warm winter, wet spring create perfect fire ant storm

The dreaded sting of spring might be a little worse this year.

A warm winter and wet spring have created perfect conditions for imported fire ants, said Sid Mullis, the director of the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County.

“With a mild winter, the ones that get knocked out in a normal cold winter weren’t – and then we had all this rain,” he said. “Put all that together and it’s looking like they’re worse than normal.”

Imported fire ants, native to South America, arrived in the U.S. in the 1930s and began infesting Georgia in the 1950s. Since then, they’ve made their way to every county.

“When I moved to Augusta in 1985, fire ants were just getting to Augusta and there were claims they would never cross I-20 because they can’t take the cold,” Mullis said. “Obviously, they’ve learned to adapt.”

Controlling the painful pests is a perennial challenge, but it can be done.

“You’re kind of spinning your wheels when you treat mounds individually,” he said. “Big mounds are territorial and keep the little ones from popping up, so when you kill the big one it allows lots of other ones to pop up.”

The best method is the preemptive broadcasting of bait across an entire yard or property, and spot-treating only mounds in high profile areas close to a house or children’s play areas.

“You can put it in one of those hand-held spreaders, broadcast it at a rate of 1 to 1.5 pounds per acre, and it will give you about 90 to 95 percent control for a year,” he said.

“The best time to do it is when soil temperature is 65 to 70 degrees, when they are actively foraging for food, which is right now,” Mullis said. “As soon as this rain is over and it gets warmed up again, I’ll be throwing mine out too.”

University of Georgia professor and entomologist Nancy Hinkle also believes broadcasting fire ant bait offers the best results.

“Baits selectively kill fire ants without damaging the rest of the ecosystem, they make the ants do the work for us, and they allow us to use the very minimal amount of chemical for maximal effect,” she said.

The ants, she added, will ignore old, stale bait. “Fire ant bait should be used within two weeks of opening the container, so buy only what you’re going to use this week. Don’t try to save it.”

A typical imported fire ant colony has about 80,000 ants, making them difficult to eliminate, she said. Controlling their numbers is the best option to avoid damage and stings.

Although painful, the sting of the imported fire ant is rarely life-threatening except in unusual cases, or situations where huge numbers of bites are inflicted.

Each year, the emergency department at Georgia Regents Medical Center sees a few fire ant bite cases, according to hospital officials.

Larry Mellick, an emergency medicine physician at the center, said cool compresses and oral antihistamines work reasonably well for mild reactions.

“You can also use over-the-counter corticosteroids topically for the anti-inflammatory effect,” he added. “However, since fire ants are in the same order as bees and wasps, there is the possibility of severe allergic reactions.”

Acute management of fire ant anaphylaxis, he said, is identical to treatment of anaphylaxis from other causes and treated with antihistamines, epinephrine and an urgent emergency evaluation.

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