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Take Pause Before Rushing Out For Ant Control

Fire ants often do need to be control in a lawn environment.

Fire ants often do need to be control in a lawn environment.

With the unofficial arrival of summer across North America often comes the mad dash to the pesticide aisle of your local garden center for insect control, especially ant sprays and baits.

Having spent four years producing a television show with Roger Swain for HGTV, I became well schooled in all the reasons NOT to kill ants. Roger, the “man in the red suspenders,” earned his doctorate degree studying ant physiology and he always cringed at folks’ overwhelming urge to kill all the ants in sight.

In a lawn environment, most ants are beneficial. You should be cheering them on for all the natural aeration they provide. To remove them is to eliminate one of the important organic insect and disease controls that Mother Nature readily provides.

Having said that, I know that invasive fire ants and carpenter ants, among others, do need to be controlled. And I know that I have an impossible time convincing my own wife that the innocuous little black ants that crawl around are kitchen counter should not be killed instantly. With that in mind, here are a few considerations:

FIRE ANTS — These are definitely nasty critters and, as a father of two young girls who spend a lot of time out in the yard, I wouldn’t want them on my children’s skin. In preparation for my book, The Organic Lawn Care Manual, I spent some time on the phone with Dr. Charles Barr from the Texas Cooperative Extension, who brought a natural insect bait known as spinosad to my attention. As the story goes, a scientist on vacation on a Caribbean island found a previously undiscovered soil organism around an abandoned rum distillery. Though the organism, a bacterium called Saccharopolyspora spinosa, has never been found anywhere in the world since, the story — and host of new products — live on.

Last year the Bonide company — which has been moving its product line to more environmentally friendly solutions for the past few seasons — released Captain Jack’s Deadbug concentrate. Easily recognizable by the picture of Captain Jack on what appears to be a Caribbean island, the natural product containing “spinosad” has already gained widespread distribution in a remarkably short period. Numerous other products also contain the same active ingredient.

It’s a bait-type product that must be ingested by the insect to be effective. In addition to fire ants, the product also controls fruit flies, caterpillars, spider mites, leafminers, thrips, sawflies and leaf beetle larvae. Beneficial insects such as ladybugs, green lacewings, minute pirate bugs and predatory mites usually leave spinosad alone. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that bees are susceptible and the product’s use should be monitored when bees are foraging — which is almost always in the summer. That means you need to use the product very judiciously. The other downside is that spinosad does have some toxicity to aquatic organisms and needs to be kept away from open bodies of water.

The product is classified as low risk to humans by the EPA, but as always, gardeners are advised to read the label carefully.

For additional information on fire ant control, here’s a great web site by Attra, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service: http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/fireant.html.

BLACK ANTS — We don’t consider ourselves to have any expertise when it comes to fire ants or black ants in the home; that’s a “structural pest” issue and is best handled by an organic pest control professional. We also NEVER recommend trying to kill black ants in a lawn environment. They do all sorts of good work for your soil.

If you have ants entering your home around a foundation, or have a nuisance ant hill where your children are playing, several natural controls are available — including one I learned recently from an Alabama follower of SafeLawns, Greta Walton. She suggests applying dry instant grits around the ant hill, or around the foundation of the home. When the ants eat the grits, the food expands in their stomachs and they eventually die. She says that one common 72 ounce box will easily cover the average yard for several applications.

The treatment I have used for years involves Borax from the laundry aisle at the grocery store. Make a slurry with two cups water, one cup of sugar and four teaspoons of Borax. You can encircle the ant hills or your foundation with this mixture and the ant populations will subside within a few days. Just make sure your dogs or infants don’t follow along behind you. Boric acid is technically poisonous to mammals, so be careful.

If you’re not comfortable mixing your own baits, you can purchase boric acid baits from several sources on-line. A common product is Bushwacker: http://www.bklabs.com/CleanLiving/CleanProducts/PestControl.htm.

One of our sponsors, Gardens Alive, offers numerous eco-friendly pest control options. No matter what, though, always read the label.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1024
  • Thomas E

    I was watching some stuff online about Compost tea and heard a recommendation for powdered horticultural molasses for fire ants. A guy in the audience said it worked great. Neither were sure how it worked but the Fire ants were gone so they did not care.

    They supposed either they disapprove of the molasses directly or the bacteria level goes up to high and the ants leave due to that.

    Any thoughts?

  • Paul Tukey

    I’ve heard Howard Garrett (www.dirtdoctor.com) from Dallas say that powdered molasses eliminates fire ants. That’s counter intuitive, because you’d think a sugar source would attract ants. But he swears by it.

  • Joan Russak

    HI PAUL,
    I spent several months in South Carolina at my daughter’s horse farm. I finally met fire ants. Nasty. I heard that aspartame will kill them. The workers bring some to the queen, she eats it and dies. I wanted to call Dr. Charles Barr and talk about it but I cannot find his number.
    Thank you for the emails.

    Joni Russak South Windsor Connecticut

  • cari

    I’ve heard that corn meal works for fire ants. They cannot digest the grains. Any thoughts?

    • Paul Tukey

      Cari,
      I have heard that one, too, but have not tried it myself.

      • Mark

        But you did mention Greta Walton’s dry instant grits remedy in this post. So, go for it.

  • http://www.antextermination.org Charolette

    Fire ants are becoming a huge problem in my backyard lately. Going to try the dry instant grits on them and see if that solves the problem.

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