With more and more focus in the public on "going green," there has been a surge of information on "natural" pest controls. The internet has been engulfed in a flood of promises of home remedies for ant control. Grits, molasses, club soda, corn gluten, orange peels, coffee grounds, and, my personal favorite, cinnamon, have been suggested as effective cures for ants. Unfortunately, I have some sad news for the home remedy camp: many of these remedies do not work. Texas Extension Agent Wizzie Brown conducted studies over the past few years to test different remedies and record the effectiveness of controlling fire ants when compared to a no treatment control group and a known effective chemical control method.
Photo from University of Florida Extension
The results were fairly consistent across the board with no statistically significant control of the fire ant colonies with any of the home remedies tested: molasses, aspartame, club soda, coffee grounds, or cinnamon. While it has been suggested that a weekly spray application of 1 gallon of water mixed with ¼ cup of molasses will prevent fire ant queens from choosing your property for a nesting site, it has not been researched in a controlled study and is questionable at best. With most of these home remedy treatments, you are simply chasing the colony around your yard. The treatment is applied and disturbs the ants. The ants, hiding deep within the tunnels of the mound, escape death and move away from the disturbance. So, even if you are getting rid of a mound in a particular location, you are not getting rid of the ants.
A few non-commercial treatments have shown promise. Both of these have been tested with research comparisons and are effective: boiling water or soapy water.
The water must be boiling when applied and not simply very hot. It kills the mound about 60% of the time, but can kill surrounding vegetation. It is chemical-free and decently effective. If you do not apply the boiling water after a saturating rain, the fire ants can escape by crawling deeper into their tunnels to the water table. You should also start with the surrounding area because fire ants have satellite holes that allow the ants to travel beneath the surface when searching for food. If you start in the center of the mound, the ants can escape out the satellite foraging openings.
Photo from Texas Cooperative Extension.
The soapy water treatment is also about 60 to 70 percent effective but doesn't require boiling. Dishwashing soaps like Dawn or others with "long lasting bubbles" work best because these increase the surface tension of water and so the stickiness. Note that hot or soapy water kill only a portion of the colony or cause it to move. Colony relocation is also likely to occur. Either practice must be done carefully to avoid being stung.
There are, of course, other methods to controlling fire ants that are both organic and effective. Some chemical treatments that are highly successful in killing fire ants are, baits containing Spinosad, orange oils (such as D-limonene) and pyrethrum based products.
For more information on fire ants and other insect control, please check out the webinars sponsored by eXtension and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. They are coordinated by the Imported Fire Ant eXtension Community of Practice. The first webinar in the Don't Bug Me series, presented on February 1, 2013, was Fire Ant Home Remedies - What Works, What Doesn't. Learn about safe and effective techniques for fire ant management for home landscapes. And this followup article, http://www.extension.org/pages/69977/debunking-common-fire-ant-myths#.VT5NRqMo7cs .
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