How to Get Rid of Fire Ants

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Updated on September 23, 2022

You’ve heard the name countless times before, and perhaps you’ve even watched their lives play out on Ants Canada, but there’s no real way to prepare for the first time you run into fire ants.

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These little critters have a reputation for being red, having a painful bite, and swarming their prey. But these attributes aren’t exactly true.

In reality, there’s no one species of fire ant, and even the term itself can be subjective. In fact, many species of fire ants completely contradict what you’ve come to expect.

So let’s take a brief look at fire ants in general, with a more focused look on the two invasive species that the fire ant reputation are based on.

Getting to Know Fire Ants

When it comes to fire ants, there are about 20 “true” fire ant species and many others that are regionally identified as fire ants due to coloration or their sting/bite.

True fire ants come from the genus Solenopsis, which contains approximately 200 different species. Several species of fire ants are native to the US and are pretty much harmless, but two invasive species are quite the opposite. These are the two we’ll be focusing on most.

Read Also: How to Get Rid of Argentine Ants

Identifying Fire Ants

Fire ants vary greatly in size and coloration, and you’ve likely encountered native fire ants without ever noticing. These behave much like the average sugar ant*, and can be hard to distinguish visually unless you’re a myrmecologist – someone who studies ants.

* Sugar ants aren’t a species, but rather a blanket term for ants that commonly invade homes looking for sugary foods, such as ghost ants, pharaoh ants, and even grease ants.

However, the two species we’ll be focusing on are very different.

Red Imported Fire Ant

Solenopsis invicta fire ants

Solenopsis invicta has become known as the red imported fire ant (RIFA for short) and has workers of different shapes and sizes, making it more difficult to identify them visually.

However, females tend to have a yellowish-tinted head and thorax with a brown to black abdomen. Males are completely black. The species name means “undefeated” and describes the vast expansion of this pest quite well.

Black Imported Fire Ant

Solenopsis richteri fire ants

The other species is Solenopsis richteri, which was once thought to be a subspecies of the RIFA. Commonly referred to as black imported fire ants (BIFAs), this species is a bit less aggressive, more cold-hardy, and exhibits different behaviors from RIFAs.

Despite the name, these ants have similar coloration, with males being all-black and females being a dull yellowish brown with black on the abdomen. However, they may appear dark brown to black from a distance.

Both of these species tend to range between ⅛ and ¼ inches long and are more likely to be found outdoors but have been known to invade homes in search of food.

Where Do Fire Ants Live?

Both imported species are originally from South America and have slightly different ranges in the US.

  • RIFAs can be found throughout the southern states from coast to coast and northward into Oklahoma, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
  • Meanwhile, the BIFA seems to be contained to Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

Fire Ant Nests

fire ant nest
Credit

As with most ants, fire ants live in underground colonies. These two species tend to build mounds, but have also been known to nest in manmade structures, including electronics such as HVAC units and junction boxes. This can cause a lot of damage and also lead to some pretty nasty surprise encounters.

While we don’t know why, fire ants seem to be attracted by electrical currents, resulting in these unusual nesting alternatives.

The mounds can be built in almost any soil type, and they’re more likely to build somewhere open and exposed to the sun than in a sheltered, overgrown location. This doesn’t mean your garden is safe, as there are food sources present. Additionally, you might not even spot the mound, and the colony isn’t restricted to a mound’s location.

See Also: 15 Ways to Get Rid of an Ant Hill

Another tricky point about the nesting habits of these critters is that some colonies may have multiple queens, while others tend to only have one. And it only takes a couple of workers on an evening march to create another colony hundreds of feet away from their home colony.

Some populations will migrate to follow food sources, and it only takes a month for a massive population explosion to occur.

Did You Know?
Fire ants can be extremely intelligent and highly coordinated. RIFAs have been known to create living bridges and even band together to form living rafts when there’s a heavy rain. When on the attack, fire ants will often rush an enemy and bite all at once to make it harder for their target to defend itself.

What Do Fire Ants Eat?

Fire ants eating a baby wasp

All fire ants prefer sugars (although they do consume some protein). This is usually in the form of plant sugars, which may come from harvesting plants or collecting honeydew.

However, BIFAs and especially RIFAs are known to swarm and attack insects, birds, rodents, and even reptiles, which they’ll dissect and take back to the colony.

Do Fire Ants Sting or Bite?

Fire ants are capable of stinging, but RIFAs and BIFAs also have a strong bite, fueled by four sharp teeth on their mandibles. When biting or stinging, they inject an alkaloid venom. This results in a painful bite that leaves behind a red and white pustule.

Oddly enough, the bite of a single RIFA only rates 1 on the Schmidt scale (as do two native fire and species), which is about as intense as a bumblebee or sweat bee sting.

By comparison, more aggressive bees and many of the less aggressive wasps rate a 2 on the scale. Very few insects are a 4, which is the most intense level on the scale.

pain level 1
A fire ant bite rates a “1” on the Schmidt scale.

However, there’s a very good reason for this low ranking – RIFAs almost never have a solo attacker and tend to swarm viciously, whereas Schmidt (quite intelligently) isolated a single ant for his intentional encounter.

While BIFAs are less aggressive than RIFAs, they will still swarm anyone or anything that disturbs their nest or appears to be a threat. The most common places they’ll attack is an exposed hand, working their way up the arm, or a bare foot and up the leg. They’ll also attempt to scale up any furniture that is placed too close to the nest.

Related: Schmidt Sting Pain Index For Bees, Wasps, and Hornets

What To Do If Fire Ants Bite You

fire ant bites

The first thing you need to do is get away from the place you’re getting bitten before more ants show up. Try to get all of the ants off of your body quickly so they can’t perform multiple bites or stings.

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While generally not harmful, the venom contains several substances that can lead to an allergic reaction. It’s usually this reaction that causes the painful sores to last for a week or more and can make them prone to secondary infections.

Allergic reactions will vary from one person to the next, but they tend to range from some nausea or dizziness to severe symptoms such as trouble breathing or swallowing. Depending on your level of allergy (and how much of the venom you were exposed to), a fire ant attack can become life-threatening. If you start having symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately.

Also, it’s important to note that while only about five percent of RIFA attacks on humans lead to a fatality, the risks are very high for pets and livestock, and children can also be at higher risk due to their size. You should seek medical attention immediately in these cases to be safe.

Fire Ants vs Red Ants

As we’ve mentioned earlier, RIFAs aren’t actually red – although (like BIFAs) they can appear to be the color they’re named for at a distance due to their tiny size. This can lead to confusing RIFAs with red ants.

However, most red ants are larger, coming in at between ⅓ and ½ inches long. The most common red ants are red carpenter ants (Camponotus chromaiodes and Camponotus ferrugineus), which are mostly docile and one of these ants will only attack if in danger.

Another important difference is that carpenter ants prefer rotting wood and are nocturnal, whereas fire ants live underground (or where there’s electricity) and are primarily diurnal.

Getting Rid of Fire Ants

Between their highly aggressive nature when threatened, their colonies (which can spread as far as 25 feet across), and the ability to form new colonies literally overnight, it can be incredibly hard to get rid of an infestation of RIFAs or BIFAs.

Other fire ant species can usually be handled like regular ants, but these two have to be treated with care.

Here are some known methods for getting them out of your home, garden, and yard, as well as ways to attack them head-on (if you’re brave and/or foolish enough to risk it).

In the House

fire ants in house

There are three ways to deal with fire ants in the home: the bait, the home remedy, and the professional.

Baits

Bait traps designed for sugar ants are great because you can place them down at night in spots you’ve seen fire ant activity and the workers will readily take the poison bait home to their queen. This method is very reliable; just be sure not to use the same product twice in a row to avoid the ants developing a tolerance.

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There are a few downsides to using baits in this case, however. Not only do you have the usual risk of a child or pet getting hold of the bait trap, but these baits are slow-acting, which means your family will have to be very careful around the ants. The good news is that this method won’t sound an alarm in the colony.

When using baits, you may also want to use glue traps. This is simply some sticky tape placed face-up along the path the ants will follow in the morning or invest in a commercial glue trap like MAX-Catch.

Try placing it beyond the bait trap so any ants that don’t take the bait will get stuck trying to explore past it. Just remember, these ants will sacrifice themselves to create a safe path for other ants, so glue traps have limited use on their own.

Home Remedies

There are a lot of home remedies that work against fire ants (including RIFAs and BIFAs), but they’re not always a one-and-done. For example, you can use citrus, vinegar, bleach, or even saltwater sprays to kill on contact, but this won’t kill the queen or any ants still in the colony.

You can also make a homemade bait trap by mixing a bit of boric acid into some honey or corn syrup and dabbing it onto a piece of parchment paper. Place the paper where you’ve seen fire ant activity, but be sure to keep children and pets away from this potent poison.

In the Garden

There are a few good methods for the garden, such as diatomaceous earth (which we’ll discuss later on), but the two best ways to get fire ants out of the garden are to remove any garden pests and use complimentary gardening.

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Fire ants love sugary substances, so any infestation by aphids, mealybugs, or other piercing insects will be an open invitation, as the honeydew these critters produce is a staple food source for many ant species.

On the other hand, complimentary gardening simply involves planting flowers or herbs that help protect other plants. Lemongrass, peppermint, and sage all give off strong scents that can override the chemical trails ants lay down to show the way to food or the colony.

Garlic, onions, and other related plants are especially useful, as they repel a wide range of pests.

Plant your companion plants around the border of your garden or even intersperse them. They’ll keep pests at bay, invite beneficial insects and pollinators, and – perhaps best of all – many of them can be used for cooking!

In the Yard

fire ants in yard

You may be able to fend off fire ants by simply maintaining a healthy lawn. Many lawn treatment products include pesticides and herbicides that can kill a fire ant colony and protect your yard from further incursions.

Also, while fire ants aren’t attracted by clutter, many other pests are, creating a potential food source for fire ants. Thus, by keeping your yard free of debris or standing water, you will naturally reduce the risk of a fire ant invasion.

How to Kill Fire Ants

This deserves its own section, as killing fire ants can be rather dangerous compared to convincing them to walk away.

If you plan on using these methods, be sure to go out at night and wear protective gear, so the ants can’t get to your skin, and you’ll also want to hose down with soapy water before going inside to make sure no ants are still on you.

Remember, it only takes a handful of workers to start a new colony!

Diatomaceous Earth (DE)

This tried-and-true solution is all-natural and safe for use around your pets and kids (although you should still limit exposure).

DE is made of the crushed, fossilized remains of microscopic diatoms. Food-grade DE may seem like a powder to you or me, but for ants, it’s like walking on broken glass. Even more importantly, the sharp fragments lacerate the ant’s exoskeleton, which causes them to dehydrate to death.

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What makes this one of the best methods (if you’re careful) is that you can sprinkle it around the nest area liberally and the fire ants will swarm out to their own doom when the colony sets out for food. The downside is that you’ll need to reapply if it rains or every few days because moisture can render this wonderful substance useless.

Boiling Water

This can be a highly dangerous method and will harm or even kill any plants that are too close to the nest. However, it has a very high success rate. Simply boil a few gallons of water and slowly pour it over the mound.

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DO NOT use this near electronics for obvious reasons, and be careful not to burn yourself. The water will kill on contact, although it might not completely wipe out the colony if it fails to flood all of the corridors and chambers.

Chemical Insecticides

While not always the best idea (because they can harm beneficial insects, contaminate soil, and pose a toxic risk for children and pets), you may find the need to resort to an insecticidal spray. A good fire ant killer, whether dust or liquid, will quickly take out most, if not all, of a colony.

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If you choose to go with an insecticide, pick one that is designed to work on fire ants and be sure to follow all instructions carefully. You can spray many of these on the ants directly, while others are residual and can be safely used at night.

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