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North Carolina’s red imported fire ant infestation continues to expand, partially as a result of recent mild winters but more recently due to increased residential and industrial development and subsequent introductions of fire ants in infested sod and nursery stock. Although fire ant stings are not fatal for most people, they are painful. The mounds that the ants build can interfere with the operation of machinery in agricultural fields. It is not practical to eradicate these ants, but their populations can be controlled, and the chance of contact with people can be minimized. This publication discusses the red imported fire ant and suggests suitable control methods.
Adult red imported fire ants are reddish to dark brown and occur in five forms: (1) minor workers, about 1/8 inch long; (2) major workers, about 1/4 inch long; (3) winged males and (4) females, each about 1/3 inch long; and (5) queens, about 1/3 inch long. Fire ant mounds vary in size but are usually in direct proportion to the size of the colony. For example, a mound that is 2 feet in diameter and 18 inches high may contain about 100,000 workers, several hundred winged adults, and one queen. If you break open an active fire ant mound, you typically find the “brood” – whitish rice grain-like larvae and pupae. These immature ants will eventually develop into workers or winged adults. Mounds constructed in clay soils are usually symmetrical and dome-shaped; mounds built in sandy soils tend to be irregularly shaped. It is often difficult to distinguish the red imported fire ant from the tropical fire ant and the southern fire ant, which are also found in North Carolina.
During the spring and summer, winged males and fe-males leave the mound and mate in the air. After mating, females become queens and may fly as far as 10 miles from the parent colony. However, most queens descend to the ground within much shorter distances. Only a very small percentage of queens survive after landing. Most queens are killed by foraging ants, especially other fire ants. If a queen survives, she sheds her wings, burrows into the ground, and lays eggs to begin a new colony. In the late fall, many small colonies of fire ants will appear. Many of the colonies will not survive the winter unless the weather is mild.
Fire ants prefer oily and greasy foods. They also feed on many other insects and, from that standpoint, could be considered beneficial. To find food, workers forage around their mound often in underground tunnels that radiate from the mound. If the mound is disturbed, ants swarm out and sting the intruder.
Credits: North Carolina Department of Agriculture – http://www.ncagr.gov
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