Unwelcome march of the fire ants

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By The Staff


Roane Newspapers

An invader is changing the landscape of Roane County, and some residents who have seen their work firsthand are worried.

Kingston residents are beginning to see concentrated mounds of them.

Doug Brown, said he has just recently noticed the significant numbers — especially in areas in Roane County Park and near the Watts Bar Belle.

“We are rapidly becoming infested here in Kingston,” Brown said.

“They swarm and can sting mercifully,” Brown said. “They are aggravating little critters.”

The sting from the ants contain an alkaloid venom. For small children, sensitive people of all ages and animals, enough stings can be deadly. For most, however, the stings are just painful.

Roane County Park superintendent Bill Black said he has also seen a significant increase in fire ant colonies over the last few years.

As a former Georgia resident, he is no stranger to the pests.

“Mounds can get as big as cars in southern Georgia,” Black said.

He added that anytime a mound is spotted in the park, it is immediately treated. Park employees keep an especially close eye on the playgrounds.

Even so, Black thinks they are here to stay.

“I don’t think you can ever completely get rid of them,” he said.

Roane County extension agent Grant Palmer is becoming an expert on the subject.

He advises people to suppress the urge to kick or set fire to a fire ant mound, which will just anger the colony and cause them to swarm.

Spray from the water hose will probably kill only the worker ants, Palmer said, and leave the remaining ones to move the queen.

The idea is to go after the head of the household, and in an ant colony that target is the queen, Palmer said.

The problem is she is usually a couple feet underground, especially during the day.

“During the heat of day you are just wasting your time if you do any kind of treatment because they are so far underground,” Palmer said.

Poisonous bait seems to work best in fighting the ants, Palmer said.

Bait must be placed around the mound and not right on top of it. The ants like to forage and will not take something that is so close to the mound, Palmer said.

“They are actually pretty smart,” Palmer added.

According to Palmer, it takes about a week for the bait to work and destroy the colony.

Although Palmer is unsure when fire ants were first brought into Roane County, he said a resident South of the River said he first saw them in 1998.

According to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the first infestation documented in Tennessee was in 1948 near Memphis. The colony, which was probably inadvertantly carried into the state, was quickly eradicated.

State offficials say the first case by natural migration was documented in 1987 in Hardin County.

About two years ago, the entire area of Roane County was placed under a quarantine because the fire ant population has grown so much.

In quarantined areas, materials like hay and soil that are moved to a nonquarantined area must be inspected and treated. A state permit may be re-quired to move some material.

The idea is to keep them from spreading to other areas.

“You don’t drop firefighters in the middle of a fire, you have them surround it on the outside,” Palmer said.

The fire ant population hasn’t necessarily exploded recently, but recent rains have brought them out, he explained.

“If there’s not enough moisture, they don’t move,” Palmer said. “You see mound buildings after a lot of rain.”

“More moisture makes it easier for them to work,” he said.