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Eradicating Fire Ants with Hot Water

UCF researcher Joshua King, Ph.D.

Joshua King, Ph.D.

February 4, 2016

If you ever see an anthill, big or small, on the sidewalk, in a field, or even in your own backyard, it’s most likely the home of a fire ant colony—specifically, the red imported fire ant (solenopsis invicta) which is an invasive species that was accidentally imported on shipping crates to the United States in the early 20th century. If you’ve ever had the bad luck of stepping on one of these anthills, then you painfully know how these exotic insects are an unwelcome presence. These tiny but fearsome imports are an expensive, persistent problem. According to the FDA, it is estimated that more than $5 billion is spent annually on medical treatment, damage, and control in infested areas. Additionally, these ants cause roughly $750 million in annual agricultural damage, including veterinarian bills, livestock loss, and crop loss.

Fire ant stings are a common occurrence in the United States, with between 30 to 60 percent of people (out of 40 million people total) who reside in fire ant-infested areas stung each year. Fire ants mainly live in Southeastern states such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. These pests are also found as far west as California.

This pestilence is more than a domestic problem. The U.S., along with Taiwan and Australia, all have ongoing national programs with efforts to control or eradicate fire ants, but their strategies remain stymied. Australia has an intensive program, costing 175 million Australian dollars, yet the fire ant problem has not been completely eliminated.

Despite the challenges of finding an effective way to control fire ants, there is a solution that is cost-effective, non-toxic, and environmentally friendly. Joshua King, Ph.D., an entomologist and associate professor from the University of Central Florida, has created a system that utilizes large amounts of hot water. The water is heated on demand at a temperature of 150°F or higher and applied to ant colonies via a pressure wash wand, immediately killing the ants. This device can provide short and long-term control of fire ants or other ground-dwelling insects such as termites, wasps, and yellow jackets, over hectares of land. You can read more in our Faculty Feature about how King used this device last summer in efforts to protect sea turtle hatchlings from fire ants in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In addition to larger sections of land, such as beaches or pasture land, this method can also be used for smaller scale applications, such as your backyard. Currently available methods involve chemically treating the fire ant mound or using broadcast baits. However, chemical treatments eradicate most, not all, of the ants in the colony, and a new colony could crop up within a few week; and broadcast baits can take months to eliminate a colony. King’s method is more potent and kills the ants instantaneously.

If you’re looking to take the sting out of life with fire ants and other pest species, this technology is available for licensing. Contact Brion Berman for more information.