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fire-ants on snowy plover egg.png

Prior to moving to coastal Georgia about 30 years ago I’d never heard of a fire ant.  The yard where we settled was manicured except for one area maybe 4 x 4 feet.  I decided to clean that up and as soon as I made one pass into the area with the mower I was covered with thousands of stinging ants.  The stings are quite painful and a single large colony can contain up to 250,000 worker ants.  Each bite causes an infected pustule and swelling.  I still have scars from that encounter 30 years ago topped off by more recent ones I got working in the garden and trying to get the ants off chicks and eggs.

Photo from Extension of fire ants on a newly hatching quail egg

We have lost several chicks (duck, chicken, and goose) this year.  At first I didn’t realize why we were finding so many half-hatched or day old dead, but seemingly fully developed, chicks in the pens and nests.  Eventually I found a pipped egg in a nest inside the chicken coop with ants on it, in it, and swarming all around inside the nest.  This wasn’t a case of a few ants crawling on an egg.  When I began to carefully remove bits of shell, ants came pouring out of the egg.  It was like something from a horror movie.  There must have been at least 200 fire ants inside the egg mercilessly stinging the poor chick.  Naturally it died and I realized we have a huge problem.

As soon as the chicks pip, the ants seize upon the bit of moisture and sting the poor chicks to death.  I had a hen hatching eggs in a cardboard box atop my freezer yesterday and by the time I saw the eggs were hatching the ants had already killed three of the chicks.  They climbed up the brick wall in the carport and from there managed to bridged the gap from the wall over to the freezer to get in the box.

A look at some chicken forums confirmed that the problem has been experienced in many areas of the South and one woman claimed the ants had killed a full-grown rooster.  The local Extension office has published papers to educate youngsters raising poultry, goats, rabbits, and other small animals for 4-H club on the dangers of fire ants when animals are penned and cannot escape them.

fire ant cluster wiki

Cluster of fire ants floating in flood water, Wiki

The quail population in the Southeast has declined drastically, primarily due to newly hatched quail succumbing to fire ant stings.  Quail nest on the ground where the ants have no trouble  getting to the hatching eggs.  A similar problem has been observed with the brown pelican.  “Two years ago, a colony of brown pelicans off the coast of Georgia completely abandoned an area of their rookery right in the middle of the nesting season.  This was a sure signal that something was wrong.”  Brad Winn, UGA, investigated and found fire ants in the nests. *

The University of Nebraska did a study on the impact of fire ants on hatching turtles and reported a loss of 70% of hatchlings on Southeastern coasts.  Brad Winn, a DNR biologist from Georgia said, fire ants damage eggs by chewing holes in the eggs and while the University of Georgia report didn’t seem to think the problem as severe they did note that during and just after hatching young turtles are found that have been killed in the shell by fire ants and others that were killed by fire ants after hatching.

The ants are particularly dangerous for people who are allergic to their stings because so many of them can attack at once.  A young Alabama mother of two died this summer after fire ants came out of a bale of hay she was sitting on and stung her numerous times.

There are multiple types of fire ants, with “our” Red Imported Fire Ant being the worst.  It is the worst because of its swarming behavior, its painful stings, and its ability to reproduce at an astonishing rate.  They are also seemingly indifferent to poisons that finish off other kinds of ants.  “One sting isn’t serious but fire ants can use their stingers again and again, and they have a nasty habit of ganging up on their victims.  Mass stingings can kill animals and people”.  **

So far we haven’t used anything I’d consider an effective poison although I’ve seen recommendations for Advion Fire Ant Bait and Extinguish Plus Fire Ant Bait, both of which should be broadcast outdoors in the spring and fall. For existing mounds, granules should be spread, not on the mound, but about 3 to 4 feet around the mound.   For those of us with free-ranging poultry, the first step is penning them up so that they don’t eat the bait.  I put Sevin granules in my chicken nests using the recommended amount for the coops but that hasn’t helped the birds nesting outside the pens or the poor hen on top of the freezer.

Travelers to Brazil and other destinations described the painful stings of fire ants in the 1860’s, I wonder what they’d say if they knew that these miniscule stinging menaces were introduced to the U.S. through ship ballast, probably in Mobile, AL, and have spread to this degree throughout the Southeast.

* http://apps.caes.uga.edu/gafaces/index.cfm?public=viewStory&pk_id=963

**  Boys’ Life.  Sept. 1992.