Know your enemy is first step to fire ant battle

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006

One hot September day, quite a few years ago, my Introduction to Entomology professor took the class on a walking tour of campus in search of bugs. He instructed us on how to collect specimens for our insect collection and showed us how to examine plants for symptoms or direct signs of pest damage.

The exploration of the insect world on the LSU campus began as one of the most interesting class periods I&8217;d ever had. The professor was enthusiastic, had a great sense of humor and made everyone in the class feel as of insect collecting would be the coolest class project ever.

I could barely contain my excitement about the opportunity to learn about insects in a hands-on environment. In fact, as soon as the first day of class ended, I considered switching my studies from horticulture to entomology. I felt that insect collecting was surely my calling in life and was certain that I would have just the right instinct when it came to searching for species in diverse habitats.

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It turns out I was right&8212;sort of.

As I listened closely to the professor about the importance of properly preserving each insect for our collections, I noticed that he glanced over at me a couple of times. I figured he was making a mental note of what an &8220;outdoorsy type&8221; I looked like and how he should remember to add me to his list of possible students to take on a collecting adventure of endangered species in some exotic land.


As he finished telling us about the importance of having our killing jars and assorted containers with us at all times in case we encountered specimens for our assignment, he glanced over at me again. This time he asked, &8220;who knows how to tell imported fire ants from other species?&8221;&8212;still looking at me. About two seconds later, I was beating what seemed like a zillion aggressive fire ants off my feet and legs, and simultaneously realizing what the answer was. Relentless stinging.

Luckily, I had worked with this professor previously on a butterfly garden at the local zoo, and he knew that I had also had a fair sense of humor&8212;and that I was not allergic to fire ants. Therefore, he used me to point out that if a visual inspection did not reveal which type of ant you encountered, the skin test would. After all, a portion of our final grade would depend on correct identification of the insects in our collection.

Quickly, I relocated to another area that did not harbor an ant mound to stand on. The professor went on to tell us how the worker ants take hold of the skin with their mandibles, anchoring on and biting. I kept sweeping my legs for strays as he reminded us of the fire ant&8217;s relationship with aphids and mealy bugs, and how we could often see them tending to those insects on plants in the landscape.

For some reason, this year the fire ants in my yard seem worse than usual. I usually don&8217;t worry about trying to kill them&8230;peaceful coexistence, right? That was until I was bitten again the other day. The truce that I have had with these lawn terrorists is over and the battle has begun.

The first step is to know your enemy.

In the next few weeks we will look into the history, biology, and most current control strategies for effective fire ant management in your yard.

Traci Maier

writes a weekly column about gardening in the Miss-Lou can be reached at