My War Against Fire Ants

If you follow me on Facebook, you know that I woke up covered in stinging ants a few weeks ago.  Needless to say, it wasn’t a great way to start the day.  I sought out and massacred every ant I could find the moment I was conscious enough to do so.  Then I wondered what kind of ant they had been and IDed them.  Fire ants!  In my house!  In my bed!  But one day of waking up with ants in my bed seemed to be the extent of the problem.  They had disappeared, so I didn’t think much more of it.

vacuum

My favorite non-toxic ant control device! Just suck 'em up with the hose and repeat as needed.

Over 4th of July weekend I went away to visit family.  The day before I drove back home, I received a text from my husband: “Ants have invaded the bathroom.  Thousands of them.  They’re on every f*****g surface.  Please come home tomorrow and save me from the ants.”  I thought my husband was overreacting.  We’ve had winged ants invade our home after the first monsoon rain of every summer for the past 3 years and they’ve never caused any real problems.  I told my husband to suck them up with the vacuum (that’s what I do) and didn’t hear anything more about it, so I figured he’d taken care of it.

But then I got home and saw the ants myself.  It wasn’t the usual post-monsoon home invasion of harmless winged ants.  No, it was a massive invasion of fire ants!  I tried to vacuum them up, but our vacuum had broken.  I didn’t have any bug killers (I don’t use them because we have pets), so I spent 2 hours picking ants up with a paintbrush laced with rubbing alcohol because it was all I had on hand.  I killed several thousand of them.  Then I did it again an hour later.  Then again.  There were too many for me to handle alone and I had been stung many times, so I finally caved and called Terminix (my landlord unfortunately has a contract with them).   That went absolutely nowhere, as usual – no call back, no appointment scheduled.  Nothing.  Meanwhile I still had thousands of mean, stinging ants in my bathroom.

The next morning, things got even worse.  I opened my eyes to the most beautiful, enormous spider hunting wasp I’d ever seen sitting on the screen door in my bedroom, so I prepared to catch and photograph it.  I scared the wasp opening the door, but I ran after it.  15 seconds later, I ran back into the house as fast as I could.  I was COVERED in fire ants and being stung repeatedly.  I squished them all, but I couldn’t believe how many ants were in the yard!  I ended up with about 20 big red welts on my feet and legs where I’d been stung.  My dog Monkey went out later.  He ran back in the same way I had a few seconds later.  I brushed the ants off his legs and officially declared war.  Ants stinging me is annoying.  Ants stinging my dogs means war!

ant control

Fire ant control agents

Because Teminix wasn’t going to solve my ant problem, I turned to the internet for information on how to do it myself.  My department’s integrated pest management people recommended using a poisoned ant bait called Amdro to control fire ants.  Because I have dogs, I am very reluctant to use poisons, but I put it on my list anyway.  I was desperate!  The ants supposedly gather the bait and carry it back to their nests so that all the ants, including the queen, eat the poisoned bait and die.  I looked into natural products and lots of people recommended diatomaceous earth.  I’m still not exactly sure how this kills ants (there are several competing ideas), but it was worth a try.  Breathing in diatomaceous earth is rather like breathing in powdered glass, and it can severely dry your skin/mucous membranes if you touch or inhale it.  Still, I figured it was safer than poison and added it to my list.   Many people also recommended baby powder and swore by the results.  I didn’t think there was a chance that it would work (why should it?), but baby powder is cheap and relatively harmless, so onto the list it went!  I bought everything on my list, the Amdro and diatomaceous earth from Home Depot and talc-based baby powder from the grocery store.  It cost about $20 for all of it.

diatomaceous earth

A diatomaceous earth barrier. Ants had to walk across this line of diatomaceous earth to enter my home.

My attack was simple.  First, with the help of the most wonderful friend ever (how many friends are willing to risk being stung by fire ants to help you?), I raked up the leaves in my yard so I could find the nests.  Many of the nests were under rocks, so I waited until the ants were less active and dumped ant bait under them.  I wanted the poisoned bait out of reach of the dogs, so I only put it under rocks.  I then spread a thick line of diatomaceous earth along the base of the house to act as a barrier for ants that were coming in from the yard.  Indoors, I thickly sprinkled baby powder all over the shower head and along the loose caulking around the base of the shower, the two areas where most of the ants were coming in.  For good measure,  I also baby powdered the base of the toilet and sink.

The following day, I went into the bathroom and was surprised to see that there were only about 30 ants running around.  I used my paintbrush on them and that was pretty much that!  I’ve only seen a total of 4 ants in the two weeks since!  I don’t know how or why it worked, but the baby powder seems to have actually worked.  I’m leaving it down a few more days, then I’ll just vacuum it up (with the new, working vacuum).  Easy!

There were also far fewer ants in the yard, but there was one line of them stretching all the way across the yard still.  When I looked closer, I noticed that the ants were all carrying larvae with them.  I had them on the run!  I ran inside and grabbed the baby powder and heavily powdered the entire line.   The next day, my yard was virtually fire ant free!  There are a few other species of ants in the yard still, but they’re not problem ants and I’m going to leave them alone.  But the fire ants are gone!

dog in yard

My dog Monkey sleeping in the fire ant-free yard!

I can once again use my bathroom without being stung.  I can chase bugs in my flip flops to my heart’s content.  My dogs can spend hours each day lying in the dirt, basking in the hot sun.  It’s glorious!  And if you’re wondering just how happy I am with the results, the very existence of this blog post should be a good indication.  Never though I would EVER write a pest control post!  But these ants…  They were awful!  They stung without provocation and there were SO many of them I just couldn’t ignore them.  I am not sorry to see them go either.

I think the method I used will work for others.  My friend who helped rake leaves had fire ants invade her house shortly after mine and my method worked well for her.  I also baby powdered the larger black ants (no idea what kind) my sister recently discovered in her pantry at the Grand Canyon.  They left immediately, though they might come back because we didn’t figure out where they were coming in and create a barrier there.  I’m not convinced that any of the methods I used will work in humid areas either (I do, after all, live in a desert), but if you live in a dry area and have fire ants, it might be worth trying a combination of the control agents I used.  They worked very quickly and very cheaply for me!

Today’s post was a little later than usual, but I should be back to my normal posting schedule now.  Check out Wordless Wednesday this week!  It features a group of amazingly beautiful ladybugs.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

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38 thoughts on “My War Against Fire Ants

    • I was REALLY shocked by how well baby powder works! My best guess is that is confuses ants that depend on making chemicals trails to navigate by eliminating or masking the scent of the chemicals, but I really have no idea. All I know is all the ants went away and they haven’t come back, and that was what mattered to me. :)

      Anyone have ideas for why baby powder might work for driving ants away?

      • Fire ants are known for being able to navigate in flooded terrain, so I’m not sure how much destroying scent trails would bother them.

      • What’s in baby powder these days? It used to be based on talc, but talc is a potential respiratory hazard, being a fine particle silicate. The typical ~12 micron particle size makes it apt to be inhaled, so maybe they stopped using it in baby products, or maybe they process it in some way to have larger particles.

        In any case,if it’s still talc based, it could be that it’s similar enough to diatomaceous earth to act the same way–more effectively if the particle size is smaller, less effectively if they’ve made the talc particles larger on average. (DE mostly goes from 10-200 microns, with long tails on the distribution.)

        Happy to live in the pacific northwet where we don’t (yet) have invasive fire ants!

        • The baby powder I got was talc based, though there was also corn starch based baby powder at the store too. I wasn’t convinced that the corn starch based product would do anything (granted, I wasn’t sure the talc would either!) so I went with the old school variety. I had read on one website that baby powder was made out of diatomaceous earth (that didn’t sound right, so I looked it up to confirm that it was in fact talc, not diatomaceous earth, in baby powder), so I figured that it would work about the same way. However, I wasn’t ever able to confirm whether diatomaceous earth ripped ant exoskeletons apart and caused them to desiccate or simply absorbed moisture through the exoskeleton and caused them to desiccate that way. Makes sense the baby powder would also dry the bugs out if people are confusing talc and diatomaceous earth!

          My fire ants were actually a native Arizona fire ant and not the invasive one. They still made an angry, stinging, awful mess though! Wow, those were nasty little buggers. I am not at all sorry they’re gone.

  1. I feel for you. I can remember when the fire ants arrived in Texas in the ’80s. Before that, you could have a picnic or just sit around in the grass. After that, no way. You would be overwhelmed by fire ants. They are also attracted to electricity, so they used to attack the wiring in the well pump and get sucked into the house, where they would clog up the sand filter. You’d try to pour a glass of water and have low water pressure and ants would actually come out. We poured Clorox over the wellhead to kill them. Might’ve been a bad idea, but we were desperate.
    Fire ants have also decimated (almost eliminated, really) our native red ants through competition and in so doing, almost eliminated the Texas horny toad. I used to play with those when I was a kid. You could always find one in a red ant bed if you wanted one. I haven’t seen one of the little lizards since around ’75. They’re almost extinct in Texas if they’re not already.
    One thing to be aware of: baits may work at least for a while, but don’t believe the “kill the queen, kill the colony” spiel. Fire ants have developed multiple queen super-colonies. So if you kill one queen, the colony lives on.
    We’re never going to get rid of fire ants, but I have high hopes for the parasitic phorid fly that biologists have been studying. Fire ants don’t have any natural enemies in the U.S., but in their native Brazil, phorid flies control fire ant populations. They lay eggs in the fire ant’s head, which at some point falls off and becomes a nursery for baby flies.

    • Oh, I fully expect all of my ants to come back eventually. They were coming through the fence from the empty duplex behind mine (I’m sure they’re still over there) and went through the fence to the yard next door when they fled my yard. They’ll be back because I know neither yard is being treated. But, they’ve been gone for 2 weeks too. I figure so long as I keep an eye on things and treat any new nests that pop up in my yard, I can at least keep them out of my space.

  2. So your fire ants had their nest under a rock? Here in GA they build mounds in sunny areas. I got rid of a nest in our front yard by pouring two kettle-fulls of boiling water into it. The grass in the immediate area was killed but the ants were too. I’ll try using the baby powder the next time we have a problem with the nasty guys. Thanks for the post!

    • A lot of my fire ants were under rocks. (Maybe it’s too hot to be out in the open in southern AZ? It did get up over 110 several days this year, and they started coming into the house right about the same time it got that hot too.) Others were out in the open with their little mounds. I think it was all one big nest though! I put the bait on all the nests entrances, but covered the ones in the open with leaves and small rocks so the dogs would leave them alone.

      I did consider boiling my ants (I don’t have grass, just dirt, in my yard, so I don’t have to worry about killing the landscaping), so I’m glad to know that works! A lot of people recommended it online.

  3. Enjoyed reading about the fire ants. I started to bed Friday night and my whole bed was infested with thousands of fire ants. They were in the sheets, blanket, in the pillow cases, under my mattress. It was as if they were swarming. I ran and got a can of Terro ant spray and began spraying my whole bed, pillow, blanket, the floor, around my bed. The spray killed them instantly. I keep my pistol under the pillow on the other side and it was filled with ants also. I gathered up everything off my bed and put it outside. Sprayed more spray around the bed. Looked for where they might have been coming in, but never same a trail of ants. Bought some Terro granules and sprinkled all the way around my house. Haven’t seen any more ants. Got an exterminator to come and spray, and needed to freeze all my bed clothes, just in case the ants had left any eggs, then washed everything in hot water and bleach. Also I needed to buy bed bugs mattress and box spring covers in case there might be any eggs left. Well I have slept on the couch since Friday night. Still not finished freezing and washing everything that was on my bed. Not sure where the ants came from or why they decided to attack my bed. I am thankful that I wasn’t in the bed when they decided to attack my bed. So far haven’t seen any more ants.

    • Yikes! It sounds like you had a whole lot more fire ants in your bed than I did! Sorry you had to go through that, though I can say you were definitely lucky you weren’t in the bed when you found then. Being stung by fire ants isn’t a fun way to wake up!

  4. I am in Merritt Island FL and we have a bad fire ant problem. I woke up at 1:00am when I heard my 16 year old son in the shower. I got up to see what was wrong and he said his bed was filled with fire ants. Sprayed everything with Raid and closed his door. He slept on the couch. Will find out if they are gone after work. I did do a quick check of the yard outside his room and did not see any nests.

  5. Okay – I’m all fired up now! Our Community Garden has a fire ant problem, and they are trying to be totally pesticide/organic/icky-things free, but we simply can’t have fire ants around the little kids who are gardening. I’m headed out to try the baby powder!

    Last year (the garden’s first year), they “exchanged dirt” – they took 2 fire ant piles and moved approx 2 cups of dirt between the two, which apparently made the mounds fight each other and both left. Not sure how well that could work in the future, but I like the baby powder idea to start with. THANKS! (My son and I LOVE your blog!)

    • I hope the baby powder works for you! I’ve got a less agressive species of fire ant than the red imported fire ants that most people have to deal with, but I hope the baby powder does the trick. I was shocked by how well it works!

  6. I’m SO thrilled I found your post. I live in central Florida and in the past couple weeks my husband has been bitten by fire ants in our house. You asked why the baby powder works. Ants breath through their exoskeleton so I’m thinking that the talc actually suffocates them. Anywhoo, I bought the EXACT items in your post and just finished treating my yard and the inside/outside perimeter of the house. After I finished the perimeter of the house, I came in and noticed 3 ants on my shoe. So, I’m thinking my ants came in either on my dogs (which I’m glad I treated the yard so they won’t get bit) or on our clothing/shoes. However precaution is always best, right? I plan on leaving the baby powder down for a few days. The scent is actually really nice and I’m thinking it would help against roaches as well. Thank you again for your information : )

    • I hope it works for you! I was dealing with a native fire ant rather than the imported one you get in Florida, so there’s a chance it won’t work quite as well or at all on your ants. I hope you’ll let me know if it works!

  7. Found your post. I live in Phoenix and have an attached, but outdoor laundry room where I store things…including my dogs food. I woke up this morning and went to the laundry room to get the dog food, and there were fire ants all over the place. They had infested his food. I moved the food, and began sweeping them out of the room. Eventually they all left his bagged food, and the laundry room is now ant free. I bought the ant poison at home depot, as I had been stung multiple times mowing the yard, and I put it down. My grass is dead now as we enter the fall so I don’t think my dog can get to it. The only place I see where the ants tend to be is on a palm tree I have in my back yard. I don’t have mounds, etc. I hope this ends it, I don’t have any in the house yet, and certainly don’t want to! When they sting me, they always leave little red marks that don’t seem to go away. I will try the baby powder in the place it appears they entered the laundry room. But I hope they die off.

    • In my rather limited experience, the native Arizona fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, doesn’t make distinct mounds and tends to build its nests under rocks and trees. Sounds like that’s what you’re seeing too. Sorry you’re having this problem though! Fire ant stings aren’t any fun at all. Hopefully the ant poison will work for you and take care of your problem.

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience. Fire ants have started to slowly show up around my kitchen sink area…small ones at first a couple days ago and then the queens – yes plural…showed up today. I just blasted all the edges with baby powder and will hope for the best as the New Year kicks in.

    • I hope it works for you! The fire ants we had in Arizona are nothing compared to the red imported fire ants in the south, but I haven’t had an opportunity to try the baby powder on them yet. I don’t know if it will work for the red imported fire ants or not! If it does work, I would really appreciate it if you could let me know.

  9. hi, I read your “blog”? and found it worth trying like you desperate to get rid of fire ants, only I have been fighting them for 6 + yrs. They have now won, they are every where in my house, and I believe living in the walls, definitel under the bathtub,,,, I tried the baby powder last night, had some here and not sure but seems to kill or stop the ones that go through it. Only put a trial amount down 1st, and like you have pets. I THINK maybe the reason it works is if I remember right ants breathe thru their bodies, not a mouth, so when they go thru the powder they get covered and it suffocates them eventually….. not sure yet or if it will really work for me. I have had a pest co out too so far only seems to have made it worse. Thanks
    D

    • Wow, it sounds like your situation is really bad. I’m not sure how well the baby powder will work on so many ants, but it couldn’t hurt to try! At least it’s cheap and if it doesn’t work you’re only out a few bucks. And yes, ants do breathe through little pores all over their bodies, so one possibility for why baby powder works might be that they’re suffocating. Others are that the scent disrupts their chemical communications and the powder dries the ants out. However, in my experience the ants don’t die, but instead move to another location, so I personally lean toward the disrupting chemical communication based on what I’ve observed. It sounds like if you could even do that much, get them to move, it would be an improvement. I really hope it works out for you!

  10. Dear dragonflywoman,

    I live in AZ too and we’re having a serious fire ant problem this year. I’ve never had this kind of problem before. My kids have been getting stung and bit, the ants are coming in through the outlets, holes in the tile grout, from behind appliances, counters, EVERYWHERE. they’re evil evil evil creatures. I’ve tried every non-chemical alternative out there except the food grade DE which is next on my list. I called an exterminator but I have 5 kids and pets and I’m really not comfortable using chemicals. If the DE doesn’t work I’ll keep my appointment with them but I’m hoping it will work. I don’t even know where the official nest is but I have a feeling they’re living in the insulation that hangs down in the crawlspace. Whenever I see them coming out of any holes outside I put on my boots and pour boiling water into the “entrances” or on them and then they swarm out in attack mode. Inside I drown the bigger ones in dish soap and spray the smaller ones with vinegar. We also have large black ants (I think they’re carpenter ants) coming into our yard from a large mound in our next door neighbors backyard. I’m fine with ants, as long as they aren’t fire ants and as long as they stay OUTSIDE and out of my plants. I realize this post was written a couple of years ago. Have you found that the DE has kept your fire ant population under control since then?

    Holly
    http://hollydollyfashion.blogspot.com
    I’m on Twitter! @kenziegreeneyes
    And Facebook! http://www.facebook.com/hollydollyfashion

    Thanks!

    • I found that the DE by itself wasn’t enough, but together with baby powder it worked miracles! It didn’t kill the ants so much as it drove them away and some did come back a few months later, but the result was the same as getting an exterminator: fewer ants. When they came back, I treated right away. They were gone within 24 hours and I didn’t see them again, though I did move out of AZ a year later. You might give the baby powder a try – it’s cheap and harmless, so there’s really nothing to lose. And I vacuumed up the ones that got into my house. It’s efficient and effective, though consider capping the hose with a couple layers of plastic bag and a rubber band or stuffing an orphaned sock or a rag into the tube when not in use in case any of them are able to make it up into the hose from the canister.

      Hope this helps! Sorry you’re having the same problems I did. It’s that time of year, so good luck!

  11. I live in Arizona and several years ago I had fire ants in my kitchen. Baits, vacuuming, and chemical poisons, didn’t work or only worked for half a day and the ants would be back . Then I read about DE online and bought a pound of DE laced with pyrethrins (sold as household insecticide)from an online source, and five pounds of plain food-grade DE from a local feed store (way cheaper). I used the insecticide type on floors and carpets and outdoors. The food grade stuff went on counter tops, sink, stove top, pantry, etc. The ants were gone within two hours and stayed gone for over a year. I still have plenty of both kinds left. Now I use it at the first sign of ants and it has always worked. I am planning to try talc next time out of curiosity.

  12. I have a horrible fire ant problem. I have 15 acres that is fenced for my horses. I have fire ants around fence posts, t-posts, in one of the stalls, all over the pastures and they are driving me nuts. I walk in the grass and they bite. I’m sure they bite the horses because I see them scratching just above their hooves. I use Terro because I can use it for the horses. Since it s outside, does anyone have experience using baby powder outside? I thought I had ordered some BUT I didn’t finish my order and the ants are horrible.

    • I have used the baby powder outside with good results, but since moving to North Carolina I’ve realized that the fire ants we had in AZ weren’t quite as aggressive the red imported fire ants of the south. After seeing the welts people get from the stings here, I’ve gotten more serious about my fire ants and use ant baits to kill them as soon as they pop up. I was told by one of my coworkers, who kills fire ants at the field station where I work all the time, that he’s had the best success with ant baits that contain Indoxacarb. If you can find bait containing Indoxacarb, it might be worth trying it in areas where your horses aren’t going to be to see if it works. The bait takes a few days to work, but I’ve had good success with it when I sprinkle 2-3 tbsp around the outside of the mounds. That said, there’s nothing to lose by trying the baby powder! Worst case scenario is it doesn’t work and you’re out $2-$3.

  13. I have used baby powder, or rather the cheapest, smelliest stuff from the Dollar Store to get rid of ants for 40 years. They leave withing 10 minutes. I have used it in Florida, Georgia,Texas, and California and it appears to work on all ants. Fire ants moved completely out of my yard in one day and I had mounds everywhere. When we remodeled a house in Galveston some years ago, I put baby powder and borax in the walls before the sheetrock went back up and we have never seen an ant or cockroach for that matter. Before, the walls were infested with thousands of ants. They run around confused with the powder so perhaps it interferes with the pheramones they communicate with, but who knows? It is safe, cheap and it always works!

    • Thanks for sharing! It’s certainly been my experience that it works, though I’m not 100% sure it will work in every situation. Still, for $1 a container, it really doesn’t hurt to try and then use something a little more aggressive if it doesn’t work.

    • Mine are not leaving when I put the CVS baby powder down. The ingredients list is talc and fragrance. It has been down for several hours. If you will read below, you will see what I did before this. I just kept adding the things, didn’t take up and start with new item. They are definitely fire ants.
      They do appear to be somewhat confused. They have spread from their straight line. At least in the straight line I knew where they were. I’m afraid they are going to spread out of control.

      • Now I make no guarantee that the baby powder will work on the red imported fire ants in North Carolina as we had a different species in Arizona, but I suspect you’ll need to figure out where they’re coming in and put the powder there if it’s going to solve your problem – or on their nest if you can find it. Putting it in their line might disorient them, but you really want to keep more from getting in. Once they’re inside, you’re going to need to figure out some way to move them or kill them. You’re probably not going to drive them back outside with the powder and should use it to keep more from coming in instead.

        The vacuum I used was a Dyson. There’s a chance the ants will crawl back out of the vacuum, but I doubt it. I put a plastic bag over the hose and secured it with a rubber band just to be sure, but nothing seemed to make its way up the tube. You might put some of those grits you put out for them inside the vacuum canister – or suck some up before you start sucking ants. With the speed at which things whip around inside those canisters, I suspect that ants + hard, sharp grit particles is probably going to result in a whole lot of sandblasted, dead ants in your vacuum. You could always leave the canister outside in the sun for a day to be sure – the heat inside might kill them – or if you happen to have one big enough to fit the canister, you can slip it into the freezer. That will kill them for sure.

        Good luck! Ants in the house are never a fun thing. I do not miss my yearly encounter with them since I moved away from Arizona one bit.

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