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by Aaron Cato - April 10, 2020
We’re off to a warm start and I think everyone is either starting harvest or watching
green berries grow. The mild winter and warm start to the spring most of us got has
also led to fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) springing up earlier than usual, and I know I have noticed all the active mounds
in Little Rock (Picture 1). There are a few growers in the state that are already seeing mounds pop up among
their plants and are worried about harvest and the health concerns related to these
feisty ants. I had a chance to talk to the University of Arkansas’s resident fire
ant specialist, Dr. Kelly Loftin, and he’s offered some advice for control.
Picture 1: Fire ant Mound in Little Rock, AR.
Along with the recommendations from Dr. Loftin mentioned here, check out the 2020 Southeast Regional Strawberry Integrated Pest Management Guidefor more product recommendations and use rates.
Are fire ants an expected issue on my farm?
I think everyone reading this could tell you whether they have dealt with fire ants
before on their property. This species has a bad habit of making itself known through
aggressive bites and stings. I worked in West Alabama last summer where this species
runs rampant, and let’s just say this is a major reason I was ready to come back to
In Arkansas we are on the edge of the fire ant range and the winters in the northern
parts of the state are usually enough to deter overwintering populations outside of
warmer city hotspots (Picture 2). Although that range cuts right through the state, anyone in the northern part would
tell you that it’s not uncommon to see this species. Usually what we see is that it
is sporadically introduced all the way up through Missouri, but as soon as we have
a hard winter it dies back about to where the map indicates.
If you produce strawberries in a county not colored green in the map in picture 2,
I wouldn’t expect you to have issues in the spring unless mild winters have been prevalent.
Picture 2: Established range of fire ant in the United States.
How do I determine if fire ants are in my strawberry field?
Monitoring for fire ants is necessary not only for determining if you will have an
issue in your field, but also because effective control measures only work if active
foraging is occurring. Dr. Loftin indicated that fire ants usually begin foraging
by April 15th in Arkansas, and he wouldn’t recommend an application of Esteem or Extinguish before
that date unless you have confirmed that the ants are active.
The go to method for determining fire ant activity is by using the hot dog test (Picture 3). First, place slices of hot dogs out where you want to monitor for fire ants. Return
30 minutes later and look for fire ants present on the slices. In Picture 3 you can see active foraging occurring, which means that fire ant mounds are active
and that workers are searching for food to bring back to the mound. This is important
because the best control measures are baits that need to be brought back into the
mounds by workers. These baits then make the queen lay sterile eggs, leading to a
collapse of the colony.
Picture 3: Slice of hot dog being fed on by fire ants. Photo by B. Royals - NC State.
How do I manage fire ants in strawberry?
Once you’ve determined that you have a fire ant issue control is relatively easy using
granular baits. Esteem and Extinguish are both labeled in Arkansas for use in berries,
although you should read the specific label of what you buy to make sure it is labeled
for strawberry. These granular baits do a great job of collapsing colonies, but the
caveat is that they are relatively slow acting. After applying these baits, you should
expect to see colonies collapsing in three to four weeks. Determine if control after
this lengthy time period will benefit your production system before choosing this
Dr. Loftin indicated that the best way to manage fire ant in strawberry is to apply
control measures in the fall. If you determine that you have actively foraging fire
ants in the fall (before October 15th and ideally in mid September) make an application of either Esteem or Extinguish.
This will collapse colonies in this area before they become dormant, meaning that
little to no colonies will exist in that area in the spring. Monitoring can begin
again in the spring, but most strawberry will be harvested in Arkansas before any
mounds will establish in your fields.
Directions for use of fire ant baits
Fire ant baits need to be collected by workers and brought into the mounds to be effective.
Dr. Loftin indicates that these baits need to be applied when the ground is not moist.
If you apply following a rain the bait could dissolve into the wet soil, making it
impossible for ants to bring it back to the mound. Moisture from sprinkler irrigation
or rain events can also lead to baits dissolving. Make applications where they can
be collected by ants at least 12 hours before any rain or overhead irrigation event,
and avoid applications until the soil is relatively dry.
If you are trying to get control before April 15th, pay attention to the forecasted temperatures for the next week. If you apply the
bait just before a cooldown (below 65 degrees), ants may not forage before the bait
is dissolved by your next rain.
Fire ants can cause a lot of hassle and headache in our handpicked crops, especially
when considering businesses based in agritourism. Granular baits offer the best control
of fire ants when used correctly and are also the safest option. Fall applications
offers efficient and effective control in areas that see yearly infestations, but
spring applications can also offer delayed control.
If you have any questions please give me a call at 479-249-7352.