Entomology and Plant Pathology

A Word about Red Imported Fire Ants and Pest Control Philosophy

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Many misconceptions abound in Oklahoma regarding the red imported fire ant, its history in the US, and the concept of eradication. I want to take a moment to highlight some historical aspects of fire ant control and present a realistic scenario for the future.

The red imported fire ant was imported into the US in the 1930s. This new pest insect presented an immediate danger to the very young and elderly, and anyone unfortunate enough to have a severe allergic reaction to the sting. It is not surprising that in the 1960s and into the early 1970s the federal government attempted to eradicate the red imported fire ant. The effort failed, and caused tremendous controversy among environmentalists, wildlife biologists, and entomologists due to wide-scale application of pesticides and differing opinions as to the severity of the problems associated with the ant.

Can we learn from the past? Several aspects of fire ant biology, better understood today than during the eradication effort, indicate that eradication of fire ants is not a realistic goal. To eliminate multiple-queen colonies, all queens must be killed-and even the best products available do not usually kill 100% of the colonies in the area of application (generally, 80-90% control is realized). Surviving colonies can produce tremendous numbers of winged reproductives that can re-infest treated areas. Other problems surface when considering eradication. Large-scale aerial application of products is unlikely due to label restrictions. Additionally, many people would consider application of pesticides to their property to be an infringement upon their free choice. We also cannot forget that other ant species are affected by bait products targeted toward fire ant control.

The facts presented above are but a few of the reasons why red imported fire ant eradication is not likely to be attempted again. Much to my dismay, however, when I am asked to appear before community groups and other interested people, someone inevitably suggests that the only way to "get rid of fire ants" is for the federal government to step in and eradicate them.

Our goal is to inform people of realistic options for reducing red imported fire ant populations, using methods suitable for their particular situation. Given the tools we currently have, we can effectively manage fire ant populations in most any setting. We cannot, however, support any effort or call for eradication throughout the range of the red imported fire ant. Our philosophy is to reduce populations of red imported fire ants in sensitive areas through introduction of natural enemies and judicious use of insecticides. We are also committed to pursuing new control methods (including non-chemical means of control), advising people on how to reduce the impact of fire ants in and around homes (sanitation and sealing potential openings), and continuing basic and applied research. We do not want people in Oklahoma or elsewhere misled into believing that a new eradication effort is possible or desirable. We do want to strive toward a future where fire ants are less abundant throughout their range and their economic impact is greatly reduced.

We at the Oklahoma State University Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology and the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service invite your questions and comments regarding this website. If you have fire ants, and wish to control them, we hope that you will take the time to carefully follow label instructions on the products you choose and that you'll use the tips and advice we have provided. Good luck and enjoy the rest of our website! 

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