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"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
Celebrating the Fire Ant

Michael Barr
Last week after the rain, the fire ants came back. They crawled up from somewhere down below- from hell most likely. When the sun came out their tiny toxic bodies swarmed silently over soft mounds of dirt as fine as coffee grounds.

In the annals of entomology few insects are as despised as the fire ant.

I've heard a fire ant stings and bites at the same time. All I know is that a close encounter with a fire ant feels like getting poked with a red hot sewing needle, whichever end of the ant is involved.

For a creature not much bigger than a pin head, a fire ant packs a wallop. It is amazing how something so small can cause such misery.

Not much can soothe a fire ant bite, although I am told rubbing it with ice helps. Or maybe a little alcohol.

A Llano County rancher described his method of treatment to me one lazy afternoon at the Castell General Store. Rub a cold bottle of beer on the ant bite, take a drink, and repeat until the pain is gone.

Government and private researchers have spent millions to kill the little boogers with little to show for their efforts. One ant dies and a thousand take its place.

Scientists have tried scalding them with hot water, dowsing them in vinegar and drowning them in Dawn dishwashing liquid. One scientist in Alabama fed them grits. The idea was that the grits would expand in the stomach and the ants would explode.

But creative schemes and expensive chemical warfare have so far provided only temporary relief. Most eradication methods that actually work are harmful to the environment.
Fire Ants

Fire ants come in several varieties, but imported red fire ants are especially mean and aggressive. Their scientific name, "Solenopsis invicta," comes from the Latin word for invincible.

The imported fire ants are resilient. They have no natural enemies, and they reproduce faster than a fast food franchise.

Imported fire ants invaded the United States in the early part of the 20th century. They came from the jungles of South America as stowaways on a cargo ship. Since making landfall in Mobile, Alabama, they have advanced through the southern United States like Sherman's Army marched through Georgia.

Fire ants like people, and they thrive in urban areas. They prefer ground that is well watered and manicured. They especially like lawns, gardens, flower beds, parks, golf courses and football fields although the latest generation of athletic surface has slowed them down some. Artificial turf is a little chewy.

They do, however, seem to enjoy eating away rubber expansion joints on highway bridges, and they have a thing for electric currents. They gnaw through insulation on power lines. They cause traffic lights to fail, and they short-circuit air-conditioners.

The state legislature in Austin once sponsored a "Fire Ant Awareness Week," but it wasn't necessary. People I know have been aware of fire ants for a long time.

Fire ants are not all bad. They eat boll weevils, cutworms, fleas and ticks, but using fire ants to treat a tick problem is like trading a cold for pneumonia.

The news on the fire ant front is not good, unless you are a fire ant.

"We don't see any hope at this point of eliminating fire ants from the United States," said William A. Banks, a fire ant researcher for the United States Department of Agriculture. "The hope is that we can find better ways of coping, so we can learn to live with them."

At least one Texas town has already embraced the fire ant and cashed in on the insect's notoriety. Marshall, Texas has a Fire Ant Festival every October. As a result, fire ants in Texas have joined mosquitoes (Clute), turkeys (Cuero), doves (Hamilton), cockroaches (Santa Fe), chiggers (Cooper), possums (Possum Kingdom), buzzards (Grand Saline) and mud daubers (Luckenbach) as reasons to throw a party.

Did you hear the one about the anteater that had indigestion from eating too many fire ants?

He took an ant acid.

Michael Barr
October 15, 2017 Column

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