The gardener vs. the fire ant

06/16/2011 12:00 AM

11/15/2011 11:34 AM

In Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” the advice-giving mother instructs her daughter, among a litany of does and don’ts, “This is how you grow okra far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants.” And indeed, okra in the garden often sports ants sipping honeydew as it is excreted from aphids that are sucking plant juices from the leaves and pods.

Traditionally, gardeners ignored ants on their okra plants, as they did no harm other than trying to run off the ladybird beetles that were eating the aphids. The arrival of the red imported fire ant has changed that. As these voracious omnivores feed on the base of the okra flower, they can cause such damage that the blossom aborts and no okra forms.

Oh, if only lost okra pods were the sole problem fire ants cause for vegetable growers. As more and more gardeners turn from tilling to mulching their garden to conserve soil moisture and reduce weeds, fire ant colonies in gardens tend to increase. Many times while weeding, I’ve had to rise quickly from these 60-year-old knees as I encountered a hidden nest of these horrid creatures.

Fortunately, we have effective and safe methods to keep the gardening experience as pleasant as it can possibly be in our 97-degree heat, 100 percent humidity, and mosquito-ridden environment.

Although it cannot be used within the garden itself, our old standby bait Amdro gives excellent control for smaller gardens. Fire ants forage 100 feet in all directions from a colony, so ants living in the garden will probably go outside the perimeter in their search for food. They will find the bait granules, take them to the mound, and the active ingredient will reach the queen. It isn’t an instant kill, but the colony starts to noticeably slow down after only a few days, with total collapse within two weeks.

For big-eyed gardeners who have established mini farms and bring in baskets of cucumbers nightly for their long-suffering wives to turn into bread and butter pickles, there are products labeled for use in the garden. Many baits that contain spinosad, a byproduct of a soil microorganism, are labeled for use within a garden. You may broadcast or apply around an identified mound. As with any bait, you should apply it when the soil is dry, on a sunny day, and after placing a small amount near a mound to see if the ants are actively foraging. On very hot days, afternoon treatments work better as ants, like South Carolinians and unlike English men and mad dogs, avoid the noon day sun.

If you have planted grape tomatoes for your children to pick and sell for their college fund, you may need a quick kill drench. Fortunately, again there are products labeled for use within the garden. Depending on the size of the mound, one to two gallons of diluted pesticide will eliminate that colony and have those happy campers back on the job the next day.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and is a co-host of “Making It Grow” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website:

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