Fire Ant

This close-up shot shows the Red Invasive Fire Ant and the telltale double hump before the abdomen.

No, it is not time to call out ‘the British are coming” as someone might have shouted after Nathaniel Greene and his American army crossed the Dan safely in February 1781.

It is time to say that the ‘red invasive fire ant has arrived’ in South Boston.

Almost one year ago, in November 2020, I wrote an article that let folks know that the Red Invasive Fire Ants (RIFA), had been found in southeastern Halifax County.

They have been in our neighboring county of Mecklenburg as well as Granville and Person counties in North Carolina for several years.

If you missed the article last year, just know that while you have been busy dodging COVID-19 this past winter, spring, summer and now fall, the fire ants have been busy reproducing and new mounds have been found further to the north and west in the county. I wrote last year that these ants were unwelcomed and uninvited visitors to Halifax County. No one called me out on that term “visitor.” It is obvious that they aren’t visiting in the county any longer, as they seem to have taken up residency. A visitor comes, stays for a while and then leaves. As we find new mounds, we notify the team with Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) and plans are put into place to eradicate the mounds found.

For many of us living in town, we may never see them, but then the ants could be in turfgrass near you fully hidden from view. The fire ants forage far from their mound in search of food, so if you find some, do not disturb them but try to follow them as they go back down their scented trail with the food in their mouth. They will lead you to the active mound. If you have a ‘smartphone’ with video capabilities, you can stand well off and take a video and blow it up to see them better. Do not disturb the mound but make note of where it is and either call the Virginia Cooperative Extension office in Halifax or your nearest extension office to report your find. The extension office will notify the RIFA team with Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS).

As one who enjoys the outdoors and loves working in the landscape, I certainly don’t want to suddenly find a mound in my yard, among my landscape plantings, beds of perennials plants, compost pile or my vegetable garden. Remember, they love undisturbed soils. When we lived in Alabama, I never saw fire ants in a vegetable garden because we were constantly in there hoeing and weeding i.e. disturbing the soil. On the other hand, the tractor trails around fields and fire roads into the timber always had mounds built up.

They also will forage into other areas where human and ant contact is not wanted such as under or in homes and buildings, inside electrical equipment, and utility buildings and shelters. Basically, where ever soil is not disturbed is a potential home for a colony. Building a mound in the right environment is what they want to do so the queen will have the right conditions for the rapid growth of the colony.

Seeing the display of the original Crossing of the Dan exhibit at the South Boston-Halifax County Museum is much more interesting, and less painful, than the ant’s crossing of the Dan, although this most recent crossing can be controlled with everyone’s help. Yes, I said painful as you want to avoid contact with these ants who tend to be aggressive when disturbed and can sting, leaving a pustule that can persist for several days.

Fire ant

Local fire ants move eggs to a new mound after disturbance in South Boston.

If you missed the RIFA article last year, I will share a portion of it again, to give you a little history.

What is the red imported fire ant and where did they come from? There are several species of fire ants in the United States now. The most notorious is the red imported fire ant that has now arrived in our county. Native to South America, these fire ants are considered an invasive species in the United States. They are aggressive, reddish brown to black, and from one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch long. As we have had established mounds in adjacent counties to our south and east, it is easy to understand how they got here.

What can you do if you find these insects on your property? You will need to contact your nearest Virginia Cooperative Extension Office so that verification can be made. You can also contact the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (VDACS) directly by phone at 804-786-3515 or through their website at https://www.vdacs.virginia.gov.

These ants are nothing to fear, but it is important to understand and have respect for what they can do. We all live with other insects such as hornets and wasp, but we know what to do around them. Much can be said about fire ants.

I would like to share with you some helpful information. You will want to avoid disturbing their mounds as much as possible. Mounds can range from having a queen and 20,000 workers to a typical colony consisting of 80,000 workers [UF Extension Research].

Can red fire ants be controlled? Yes, is the answer. At this time VDACS and USDA have program funding that will assist in treating known mounds/hills. Is it a mound or it is a hill? It is according to where you are from, and where you are, as to what you call it. In South Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, they are generally called hills or colonies. While in North Carolina and Virginia they tend to use the words, mounds and colonies. It won’t matter unless you are traveling to any of the states that are dealing with these unwanted visitors; from the hill country of Texas across Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, eastern Maryland and Virginia.

To report new mounds to VCE by email, notify either Rebekah Slabach, extension agent, agriculture and natural resources rslabach@vt.edu or William McCaleb, program assistant, agriculture and natural resources wmccaleb@vt.edu.

McCaleb is the local master gardener coordinator