COLLEGE STATION - A recent study in rural Texas allowed respondents to estimate not only the damage from red imported fire ants, but also to calculate benefits as well, according to a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station economist.
Agricultural producers in a 54-county area in East, Central and Northeast Texas reported an average total cost of $1,691.41 per farm, for a total cost of nearly $94 million, said Dr. Curtis Lard of College Station.
Extrapolating that cost statewide would mean that fire ants cost Texas an estimated $236.5 million, he said. This has increased from the $90.5 million in fire ant costs projected from the last survey that was conducted 1999 and published in 2001.
“It shows that we still have significant losses from fire ants,” he said.
But respondents estimated benefits of fire ants were $6.5 million in the surveyed area. That would total about $16.5 million in benefits statewide, Lard said.
The survey was conducted by Lard under the Texas Fire Ant Initiative through the department of entomology at Texas A&M University.
More than 1,000 farmers and ranchers were asked their perceptions about the impact of red imported fire ants. The survey was the most comprehensive study of its kind in the U.S., Lard said, and it was tacked on to the regular agricultural production survey conducted every year by the Texas Agricultural Statistics Service.
Some of the commodities covered in the survey were cotton, grain, timber, hay, beef cattle, sheep and goats, short-rotation woody crops and poultry.
To qualify for the fire ant study, participants had to live on a rural homestead that qualified as a farm or ranch, Lard said.
Red imported fire ants benefit such crops as soybeans, sugarcane and cotton because they break up and aerate the soil, making more water and nutrients available to plants, Lard said. They also attack other harmful insects in cotton fields. The majority of the producers said they also had fewer harmful insects, arachnids and arthropods such as chiggers, scorpions and ticks. However, some beneficial insects also re adversely affected by red imported fire ants.
Medical costs related to fire ants — for both humans and animals — were estimated at $36,554, or $36 per farm. This includes the costs of medical attention and loss of work hours. The most common medical costs were medications, hospitalizations and doctor visits, the report stated. About 43 percent of the respondents reported harm to a person, and about 23 percent reported harm to pets.
The highest category in costs was homestead damage. Fire ant damage to electrical switchboxes and heating and cooling units totaled $393,147, or $388 per farm.
Costs associated with the repair or replacement of equipment was more than $281,000 for the area, or $278 per farm. According to the survey report, the costs included replacing or repairing broken parts on shredders, combines, tractors, well pumps, mowers, solar fence chargers and wheel bearings.
Production losses were lower than those in the 1999 survey, Lard said. Respondents reported about $267,000, or $264 per farm, in production losses. In 1999, these production losses were about $360 per farm. That included damage to trees, forage, hay, pastures, vegetables and fence posts, and injuries to livestock.
Dr. Bart Drees, Texas Cooperative Extension entomologist, said fire ants often construct mounds at the bases of fence posts, making the repair or replacement hazardous and difficult.
“On trees, imported fire ants are known to girdle and kill young citrus trees, and mounds at bases of trunks can be hazardous in cut-your-own Christmas tree plantations,” he said. “They are not known to be harmful to established trees, although some people believe that a mound at the base of a dying tree can be the cause of the tree’s decline.”
Wildlife losses were estimated at $143,000, or $141 per farm, and included decreases in wildlife numbers and customers, such as hunters and fishermen.
The red imported fire ant is found in more than two-thirds of the counties in Texas; the survey area was chosen because of its diversity in crops and abundant presence of fire ants, Lard said.