Fire ants: love ’em or—well, let’s not kid ourselves here. Nobody loves the stinging little horrors, the relative strangers to our shores that have wrought enormous change to Texas and the South since their arrival in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1930s, as stowaways aboard a South American freighter.
Picnics, outdoor sports, even a simple barefoot stroll across your own dang backyard. None of these experiences have been the same since RIFA (red imported fire ant) D-Day. They’ve been implicated in severe declines in the numbers of iconic Texas critters like the horned frog, ground-nesting birds (especially quail), and that once-bountiful backyard delight, the lightning bug. According to Texas A&M scientists, the tiny venomous varmints damage Texas agriculture and industry to the tune of $1 billion a year. Their mounds wreck farm equipment. They undermine roads, causing potholes. They have a thing for electromagnetic fields, and love to chomp on signal boxes and such. They freak us the hell out when millions of them join pincers after a deluge, forming a rusty-red, basketball-sized living life raft, and ride out the floodwaters to a new home on dry land.
Today they are present in two-thirds of our 254 Texas counties. As then–ag commissioner Jim Hightower put it, more than a little feverishly, in 1987: “Fire ants have us Texans outnumbered far worse than Colonel Travis’ men were outnumbered at the Alamo.”
And there are times—when you suddenly feel the simultaneous, seemingly coordinated stings of several dozen of them on your feet, ankles and shins—when you understand how Travis might have felt when he saw Santa Anna’s blue-coated men streaming through the breaches in the Alamo’s battered walls. It’s easy to adapt his famous letter to that scenario:
People of Texas & All Americans in the world—help! I am besieged by a thousand or more (cuss word) fire ants…I have sustained a continual stinging for 2.4 seconds now or more….The enemy is receiving reinforcements by the microsecond & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five seconds. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country — Victory or Death.
At such moments it is easy and understandable to wish total eradication upon the RIFA. But is that fair, or even wise? It’s taken eighty or so years, but some experts are beginning to detect a good side to these six-legged menaces, notably entomologists and master gardeners at Texas A&M.
So, believe it or not, here are a few of the upsides to fire ants.
They Keep Out Fleas and Ticks
When fire ants sting you, it’s not personal, just business: the business of being a fire ant. They are consummate omnivores. As UT-Austin entomologist Dr. Edward Vargo put it, “Basically, anything that stands still for longer than fifteen or twenty seconds is fire ant food.” That includes not just the lovable creatures mentioned above and, let’s face it, you, if they could successfully bring you down, but also mosquito eggs and larvae, cockroaches, chiggers, fleas, and ticks. I’ve observed this in my own lifetime: I spent much of my childhood in RIFA-free Nashville, and both my dogs and me were no strangers to ticks and fleas after our forest rambles. I’ve also noticed a drastic decline in their numbers in Texas over the last thirty years or so, as RIFA numbers have exploded. Back in 1980s Houston, my grandparents used to spend whole evenings on their bed, watching Masterpiece Theatre as a rickety window unit blew cold air into the room, a bowl of flea poison between them, picking fleas off their mutts and dropping them in that pot of liquid doom. After a decade or so away from Texas, I’ve returned to a relatively flea-free Houston. But where fire ants are not present, such as a heavily forested campsite I once frequented on Camp Creek Lake north of College Station, both ticks and chiggers are bountiful, as I found out firsthand in both cases.
With tick-borne diseases on the rise, this is no small benefit. As Texas A&M–trained master gardener Frank Resch reminisced: “When I was a kid growing up in Northeast Texas in the ‘50s, every spring you would come back from the woods with thousands of seed ticks. Your mama would have to put you in a bath tub with Stanley Germtrol to get rid of them. You might smell a bit odd when you got out of the tub, but the ticks would go down the drain with the water. But after our beloved fire ants arrived in the 70’s, I have only seen one tick in the last 30 years. And that is not to mention that I haven’t had a roach fly across the room in almost that long.” Of course with fire ants, it’s always a mixed blessing, as Resch pointed out: “And for sure, you don’t get scared any more when walking across a field and flushing a covey of quail. God bless those little fierce red devils.”
And compared with the agony of a chigger outbreak, a fire ant bite or ten feels like a kiss from a rose. RIFAs also cut a wide swath through the populations of agricultural pests such as boll weevils, chinch bugs, cane borers, and stink bugs, sometimes in sufficient numbers to move them over to the positive side of the ledger financially.
Friends of Farmers
Speaking of farming, and gardening for that matter, experts love what fire ants get up to underground (if not above). Their continual tunneling leaves previously compacted soils aerated and pliable. Here’s master gardener Julia Moncur: “I like the nicely tilled soil hills they leave behind when they have vacated. I treat the piles with a mixture of orange oil, agricultural molasses and dawn dishwashing liquid. They run away and leave me a nice pile of soil that I move about as needed in the garden.” On a larger scale, cotton, soybeans, and sugarcane all benefit from their ability to suck up more nutrients out of fire-ant-aerated earth.
They’re … Affectionate?
Dr. Deby Cassill, a fire ant expert at the University of South Florida, insists that RIFAs have far more human qualities than we generally believe. BBC documentarians recently filmed her in her fire ant study lab in St. Petersburg, where she shared her love of RIFAs with a camera crew filming a five-part series, Animals Like Us. Fire ants were definitely an outlier in a group that also included elephants, prairie dogs, and dolphins. Like us, they go to war over turf, she pointed out, but they also have more positive, gentle traits:
“They do this cute little booty wiggle,” she said as the camera zooms in on one ant. “They only do it when they’re taking care of the babies. It’s an expression of love.”
Another video shows an ant gingerly carrying a baby ant in its pincers.
“These jaws that can kill another ant and bring blood to a human carry this egg so gently,” she said.
They Help Us Bond
So, they eat a bunch of critters we might hate even more, they do wonders with the soil, and they love their kids. Although there are a few more things to love about RIFAs, most of the other Aggie gardeners who spoke to the school recently offered compliments that were, at best, backhanded or double-edged. One said that they offered Texans “solace in commiseration,” in that they “give all good Texans something to complain about.” Another touted the boon to his bottom line: “I would always be able to earn extra income after retirement by sharpening lawn mower blades and repairing engine drive shafts damaged from encounters with fire ant mounds.” A couple more were downright sadistic: “My favorite thing about fire ants is the sound they make when you set them on fire . . . hah hah hah,” said one. “They make a little popping sound, like pop-ants! I suppose we can also say they are part of the process in the compost bin . . . but it’s a stretch!” Added another: “I like killing fire ants for the entertainment value.”
And one last one waxed philosophical: “They are God’s little way of showing us we are not in charge.” Luckily for us, fleas, ticks and chiggers probably all think that same way, only more so.