Fire Ants in Virginia – Part 1: Unwelcomed, Uninvited Visitors to Halifax County

Worth Hudson stands beside a Red Imported Fire Ant mound.  Do not disturb the mound.  If you find a mound, notify your local Cooperative Extension Office.

Normally we love to have visitors come to Halifax County, but in this case, it is unwelcomed travelers who were probably hitching a ride on a piece of movable farm, logging, or other commercial or private mobile equipment, and have now set up their home in the southern end of Halifax county.  We now join our adjoining counties to the south and east of us in dealing with these unwanted, unwelcomed, uninvited red imported fire ants Solenopsis invicta. 

What is the red imported fire ant and where did they come from?  There are several species of fire ants in the United States now.  The most notorious is the red imported fire ant, that has now arrived in our county.  Native to South America, these fire ants are considered an invasive species in the United States. They are aggressive, reddish brown to black, and from one-eighth to one-quarter of an inch long.  As we have had established mounds in adjacent counties to our south and east, it is easy to understand how they got here. 

What can you do if you find these insects on your property?  You will need to contact your nearest Virginia Cooperative Extension Office so that verification can be made.  You can also contact the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (VDACS) directly by phone at 804-786-3515 or through their special website at https://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/plant-industry-services-fire-ant-suppressioneand-eradication.shtml .

These ants are nothing to fear, but it is important to have an understanding of and a respect for what they can do.  We all live with other insects such as hornets and wasps, but we know what to do around them.  Much can be said about fire ants. 

I would like to share with you some helpful information.  You will want to avoid disturbing their mounds as much as possible.  Mounds can range from having a queen and 20,000 workers to a typical colony consisting of 80,000 workers [UF Extension]. 

Can red fire ants be controlled?  Yes, is the answer.  At this time VDACS and USDA have program funding that will assist in treating known mounds/hills.  Treatment depends on the weather and land use.  Any fields being used for animal grazing or for food cannot be treated at this time.  Is it a mound or it is a hill?  It is according to where you are from and where you are.  In South Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, they are always called hills or colonies.  While in North Carolina and Virginia they tend to use the words, mounds and colonies.  It won’t matter unless you are traveling to any of the states that are dealing with these unwanted visitors; from the hill country of Texas across Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, eastern Maryland, and Virginia. 

Another related article in this newspaper that addresses the history, habitat, feeding habits, and precautions to take around these sometimes-aggressive insects will be in a later publication.

While we all are practicing ‘social distancing’ and Halifax County buildings are still closed to the public, due to COVID-19, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu or ask@ssmga.org.  If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number, and nature of the call.  The Help Desk phone is checked regularly and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number.  Keep washing your hands, wearing your mask, and keep your eyes peeled for any unusual mounds or hills that show up on your property.