HOUSTON – As East Texans begin cleaning up the rubble left by Hurricane Rita, they may find some unwelcome evacuees from “down under.” These stinging invaders are Texas Red Imported Fire Ants who have moved into the piles of debris left behind the hurricane.
According to Paul Nester, Texas Cooperative Extension agent for integrated pest management in Houston, flooding, tornadoes and other severe weather brought on by Rita left more than humans homeless.
“When a colony is flooded out of their mound they collect into a ball’ that floats on the water,” Nester said. “When they find solid ground they may not necessarily build their mound underground because of the moist conditions, but they use the ready-made shelter that furniture or a pile of debris provides.”
Nester explained when humans begin clearing away debris, they may be in danger of encountering an ant colony and find themselves covered by hundreds of the stinging pests before they know it.
“If a person has to wade through areas where flood waters have not yet receded, they should wear boots, cuffed gloves, long pants and long sleeves,” he said.
Nester also recommended protective clothing when clearing debris by hand. Individuals should be aware that fire ants may be hiding anywhere, such as under wood or trash that has been sitting for several days.
“Fire ants love to get under furniture, carpet strips and old wood to re-establish their colony,” he said.
Nester offered these additional tips:
Spray lower legs and shoes or boots with insect repellant containing 25 percent or greater amounts of DEET. If someone gets into a colony, this will slow down agitated fire ants from spreading quickly over the body.
Whenever possible, use a shovel to remove piles of debris. Spread talcum or baby powder on the handle. Fire ants cannot climb vertical surfaces covered with powder.
Although insecticides and other chemicals can be damaging to fish and other aquatic life, they might be considered in an extreme condition, such as a flooded-out home or business site. Be sure to read the label and follow the instructions carefully, so the product will not be overused and waste will be limited.
If necessary, consider treating piles of debris with a fast-acting household or lawn and garden insecticide. Aerosol spray products containing pyrethrins or pyrethrum derivatives, such as deltamethrin, permethrin, cypermethrin, or bifenthrin, and are labeled “for ants or crawling insects” provide a quick knock down of the colony. Be sure to spray surfaces and cracks of infested objects and debris, then come back after the product has had time to act.
Do not use fire ant bait products because they are slow-acting. The flooded mounds will be disorganized and worker ants will not be foraging for food.
“Once families have their homes back in order they need to think about preparing for next (fire ant) foraging season,” Nester said. “This is the time to use baits or other preventative measures, so that the fire ants don’t become a permanent addition to your home.”
For more information about fire ants, such as year round management or treatment methods for stings, visit http://fireant.tamu.edu/ .