Rain sends fire ants marching

September 28, 2011 

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The rain came down, and the fire ants came up.

After a dry summer, the stinging insects that were underground have moved their mounds up above the water table, local exterminators say.

The problem is probably worse in parts of the Palmetto State hit harder by drought, said Mike Trezza, branch manager of the Beaufort and Hilton Head Island office of Palmetto Exterminators.

Huge mounds have dotted some South Carolina lawns and ballfields, causing a soccer game in Aiken to be moved over the weekend and the postponement of one in Orangeburg County.

In Beaufort County, fire ants make a comeback every year after heavy rains, said Joe Penale of Beaufort County Parks & Leisure Services. The insects haven't caused any athletic cancellations locally because maintenance crews repair fields "way before the games," he said.

"It's just part of the whole process of the Lowcountry."

Vice president of Imperial Pest Controllers Greg John said calls about fire ants have been coming in more frequently. In late August, the company treated Mitchelville Beach Park, where "they were having a lot of problems with them," for Hilton Head Island High School's Hawkfest, he said.

The underground colonies build mounds above ground to "dry themselves out," said Palmetto Exterminator owner Bert Snyder. They prefer open, cleared areas with direct sunlight, like lawns, golf courses and fields.

"We have been dealing with them for years," Snyder said. "They're not any worse now than they've ever been."

Fire ants, like kudzu, are an invasive species. The difference is that kudzu was brought from Asia intentionally to control erosion, while fire ants slipped into the port of Mobile, Ala., in soil used for ballast in ships, probably from Argentina, said Tim Davis, an invasive-species specialist with Clemson University Cooperative Extension.

Queens can lay 100,000 to 300,000 eggs a year, Davis said. Since their introduction in Alabama in the late 1920s or 1930s, fire ants have spread across the Southeast and into parts of the Southwest, arriving in South Carolina in the 1990s.

Cold temperatures keep them from spreading to northern states, Davis said.

Snyder said fire ants are easy to control with bait products that homeowners can spread or have an exterminator apply during regular pest control measures. The ants will carry the granular product deep into the nest to feed the rest of the colony. The method works best with fresh bait applied in the evening; it may take two to three weeks to work.

"It uses the biology and behavior of the insect to control them rather than spraying a whole lot of chemicals all over the place," Snyder said.

Fire ants are aggressive and attack when their nests are disturbed. The ants swarm humans and animals, and when one bites, an alarm pheromone is released that causes other ants to latch on with their jaws and rotate their backsides to inject venom.

Most people have a mild reaction, including minor swelling and a burning sensation, while a small number can have an allergic reaction that can cause death.

Anna Simon of The Greenville News contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.

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