Entomologists J.T. Vogt (foreground)
and Douglas Streett examine fire
ant mounds in an airborne digital
image from Natchez Trace Parkway.
In this false-color infrared image,
mounds appear as light spots of
bare soil surrounded by reddish
halos of healthy vegetation.
ARS sets up regional
programs to combat
imported fire ants
Fire ants have been pests in the southern United States since their
arrival in 1918 aboard merchant ships coming to Alabama from South America.
They found their way onto land and have been multiplying and migrating
Now fire ants can be found throughout the southeastern United States.
It's estimated that up to 40 percent of all people living in urban areas
infested with these insects are stung by fire ants each year, and the
percentage is even greater in rural communities.
Imported fire ants pose a potentially deadly hazard to people, damage
electrical equipment and farm equipment, create unsightly mounds, and
alter the population mix of native insects and wildlife. They can even
kill young cattle and other livestock.
Before an experiment to evaluate
potential treatments for
killing fire ant queens and
preventing shipment contamination,
Jason Oliver, entomologist with
Tennessee State University,
labels root balls. Oliver's
research is aimed at developing
APHIS-approved treatments for
certifying nursery stock as
fire ant free.
Forming a United Front
To combat this ongoing problem, the Agricultural
Research Service's Biological Control of Pests Research Unit in
Stoneville, Mississippi, is conducting regional integrated management
programs in that state as well as Alabama and Tennessee. The programs
are designed to implement and test biological control agents against
red and black imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta and S.
richteri) and their hybrid. Researchers are also examining ways
to preserve native ants, which are thought to slow reinfestation of
areas by imported fire ants. Universities, federal and state agencies,
and landowners are all cooperating with ARS researchers to combat fire
ants in two specific areas: the Natchez Trace Parkway (National Park
Service) and south-central Tennessee's vital nursery crop production
The Natchez Trace Parkway, extending from Natchez, Mississippi, to
Nashville, Tennessee, essentially represents a north-south transect
along which red, black, and hybrid imported fire ants all occur. Thus
it offers an ideal opportunity to try out the latest control technologiesand
to develop new ones. Central Tennessee's nursery industry is a vital
part of the economy in that region. Imported fire ants mean increased
production costs, because growers must treat their nursery stock with
chemical insecticides to comply with imported fire ant quarantine regulations.
One grower in the region has estimated his increased cost to average
as much as $1 per plant soldwhich doesn't seem like much until
you consider that a large nursery operation may ship thousands of plants
at a time.
At Natchez Trace Parkway,
Bill Whitworth, natural resource
director for the parkway, and
ARS entomologist Jian Chen
prepare to offer fire ants
A female fly injects a single egg into a worker fire ant. When the
egg hatches, the immature maggot migrates to the ant's head, where it
continues to develop and eventually eats the brain and muscles. This
decapitates the ant, but the developing fly remains in the head capsule
as a pupa. After a couple of weeks, a new adult fly emerges and begins
the cycle again.
Postdoctoral researcher Larry G. Thead reared thousands of phorid flies
for research and field releases. One tiny species, P. curvatus,
has been successfully established on black and hybrid fire ants in a
multistate release program that began in 2002. Flies released in two
pastures in Clay County, Mississippi, now occupy some 560,000 acres
up to more than 28 miles from the release sites. Collaborators Kenneth
and Rufina Ward, with Alabama A&M University, and Jason Oliver,
with Tennessee State University, have reported successful establishment
and overwintering at Natchez Trace and nursery production sites. "We're
very excited about the dispersal rate," says Thead. "Not only
are the phorid flies attacking and parasitizing the ants, they are harassing
them. This affects the ants' ability to search for food, weakening colonies
and allowing native ants a better chance to compete and reestablish."
Fire ants are annoying
and sometimes dangerous
pests throughout the
southeastern United States.
ARS scientists and
collaborators are conducting
regional integrated pest-
management programs to
spread the use of
the latest control
Douglas A. Streett, who leads the Stoneville unit, believes that "the
research unit's proactive IPM approach to regional fire ant programs
will be successful at controlling the insect's populations." Entomologist
James "J.T." Vogt is developing remote sensing techniques
to gather information from airplanes about the abundance and distribution
of fire ant mounds at targeted locations. A geographic information system,
a computer system that collects and displays geographically referenced
data, is being used to track fire ant populations and associated landscape
characteristics. This reveals information that researchers need to map
fire ant populations, track success of their control efforts, and guide
research efforts in regional management programs.
Having developed methods for detecting 70 percent or more of mounds
in some landscapes using airborne multispectral imagery, Vogt is investigating
thermal characteristics of mounds to optimize timing of airborne thermal
infrared data collection. "Adding another layer of information
to multispectral images, specifically surface temperature, has the potential
to improve detection and decrease false positives," says Vogt.
Integrating Pest-Management Techniques
Regional programs involve what is known as integrated pest managementcombining
tactics such as insecticidal baits with natural organisms. Chemical
bait treatments alone are not sustainable, because fire ants will reinfest
previously treated areas. But they can be very effective, consistently
killing about 90 percent of colonies in an area when applied correctly.
In the nursery industry, chemical control measures are sometimes necessary
to protect workers and adhere to quarantine regulations.
Entomologist Jian Chen joined the Stoneville team in 2003 and hit the
ground running. He has already developed a new bait formulation.
"Tests have shown that the bait is more water resistant, which
means it will last longer in the field," says Chen. "And it
attracts fire ants better than previous formulas."
In addition to attractants, repellents are being developed to keep
fire ants away from areas where they are a nuisance and where it's not
practical to use insecticides because of health or environmental concerns.
Chen developed a fast, easy-to-perform fire ant repellent bioassay
by taking advantage of fire ant digging and tunneling behavior. The
bioassay identified dimethyl and diethyl phthalatescommon ingredients
found in cosmetics, personal care products, and plasticsas strong
repellent candidates in possible formulations. Repellents could prove
to be useful tools for keeping fire ants out of electrical equipment
or out of nursery plants that are being held for shipment. Chen hopes
the bioassay can be used to help find even more repellents.
The scientific team has also invented a red imported fire ant bait.
The bait is licensed to and distributed by Waterbury Companies, Inc.,
of Waterbury, Connecticut.By Alfredo
Flores and Jim
Core, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Veterinary, Medical, and Urban Entomology,
an ARS National Program (#104) described on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Streett, James T. Vogt,
Jian Chen, and Larry
G. Thead are in the USDA-ARS Biological
Control of Pests Research Unit, 141 Experiment Station Rd., Stoneville,
MS 38776; phone (662) 686-5487, fax (662) 686-5281.
O Fire Ant, Where
Is Thy Sting?
Fire ant colonies can be
spotted by mounds of aboveground soilthe result of a network of
underground tunnels that serve as living quarters and branch out into
the ants' hunting territory. The ants are very aggressive and will readily
attack anything that disturbs their mound, including humans. After firmly
grasping the victim's skin with its jaws, an ant arches its back and
inserts its rear-end stinger into the flesh, injecting venom from a
poison sac, inflicting seven or eight stings. Fire ant venom is unique
because of the high concentration of toxins, which are responsible for
a firelike burning pain. Stings can also cause swelling and tiny blisters
and, in severe allergic reactions, hives, nausea, vomiting, breathing
difficulty, and even death.
"Putting Out the Fire" was published in the December
2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.