The Red Terror

The Red Terror

Fire ants are a pain, infiltrating equipment and damaging fairways and greens. Learn how to manage these interlopers when they invade your turf.

June 19, 2018

They are small, moving about the ground nearly unseen. But, boy, can they do damage and cause a world of hurt to the unsuspecting. What are they? Fire ants, and, in the South, Southwest, West and a bit into the transitional zones, they are raising havoc on golf courses and giving superintendents fits.

The term “fire ant” refers to the Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA), but there are several other species of fire ants established in the U.S., including the tropical fire ant, southern fire ant and black imported fire ant. RIFA is most problematic because it is an aggressive invader, significantly disrupting an ecosystem it invades, and causing painful and dangerous stings on humans and animals. One of the worst fire ant scenarios involved a golf course dormant for a couple years during the transition from one owner/management team to another, says Dr. Robert Puckett, assistant professor and extension entomologist at Texas A&M University. “The course was simply unplayable until the population was suppressed,” he says. 

Fire ants can infiltrate and destroy electrical and mechanical equipment, everything from irrigation wells to the electrical systems that control them can be susceptible to fire ant damage, Puckett says. “Aesthetically speaking, fire ant mounds are a big issue for course superintendents, and their presence on greens and fairways can create hazards of play that might be a surprise for northern golfers when playing in states with fire ants,” he adds.

In his frequent travels, Syngenta senior technical representative Dr. Lane Tredway says most golf courses do an “excellent” job of controlling fire ants. “Many superintendents make broadcast applications of products to prevent fire ants,” he says. “Crew members sometimes carry fire ant control products with them and are trained to treat any mounds they see. I’ve even seen fire ant products on golf carts, and golfers were encouraged to treat any fire ant mounds they see. This might not be the best way to get golfers involved in maintenance of the golf course – they should focus on fixing ball marks and filling divots.”

Fire ants have less impact on playability than many other insects and diseases. However, this is not to say there is zero impact. “I’ve always enjoyed the fact that there is an actual rule about what to do when your ball settles in a fire ant mound,” says Dr. Timothy Davis, University of Georgia Chatham County extension coordinator/Chatham County ANR extension agent. “The two biggest impacts are not really play related. All things being equal people are more likely to complain to management about fire ants than anything else. They are unsightly and when obvious seem to bring complaints. This impacts the bottom line. If people have a choice, they will go to the place they don’t see fire ants rather than the place they do see fire ants.”

Then there is the liability issue, warns Davis, “About 15 percent of the human population can have a severe localized allergic reaction,” he says. Approximately, 1 to 2 percent can have a severe systemic reaction that leads to anaphylaxis and even death. “Courses can and will be held liable for a failure to properly treat for fire ants in these situations,” he says.

Golf courses in infected areas do invest a significant portion of their budgets to fire ant damage mitigation and control.  For example, expenses include fire ant control, replacement of damaged equipment and medical expenses associated with fire ant stings, says, Dr. Kelly Loftin, an extension entomologist at the University of Arkansas. One area of great concern, he adds, is replacement of electrical equipment and systems associated with irrigation systems. In addition, maintenance personnel are often exposed to multiple fire ant stings.

A Texas study indicated golf courses in Austin, Dallas, Ft. Worth and San Antonio spent an estimated $30 million on fire ant control and damage associated with fire ants. Golf courses in fire ant infested areas report significant damage to right-of-ways, roughs, tee boxes and electrical equipment boxes.

Even Hawaii is not immune to the problem, which is “little fire ants (LFA),” says Michelle Montgomery, research specialist with the Hawaii Ant Lab. “To work at avoiding the establishment of any pest is to avoid the major cost of management, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” she says.
Prevention plans include establishing an appropriate quarantine area for holding and inspecting incoming plants, materials, and equipment to ensure they are fire ant free prior to moving them around the property and conducting annual or semi-annual surveys of the entire golf course, focusing particularly on vegetation “islands,” new construction areas and new plantings. Sanitation, including phytosanitation, is also very important as it reduces habitat.

“If you are along the current range of RIFA, always have a fire ant control product available and treat any mounds as they appear,” Tredway says. “Be sure that your staff is properly trained on how to identify fire ants, where to look for their mounds, and how to properly apply the product selected. Being vigilant is the best way to prevent a full-blown fire ant infestation.”

Fire ant control products can be formulated as baits or contact materials and can either be broadcast or applied as mound treatments. For best results, it is critical to understand which type of product you are using and what is the optimal application method.

Historically, contact products worked quickly, but often did not provide complete control, and treated colonies recovered over time. “Bait materials provided more complete control, but were very slow to act,” Tredway says. “This led to development of the Texas Two Step method, where individual mounds would be treated with a contact material to provide fast knockdown, and at the same time a bait material would be applied to provide more complete, long-term control.”

“Advion Fire Ant bait can be applied either as a broadcast application or to the area surrounding individual mounds,” he adds. “Through either application method, the active ingredient works quickly to stop mound activity, but also kills the entire colony to prevent it from rebounding. You can achieve the same results as the Texas Two Step method with this single product. Two broadcast applications of Advion Fire Ant bait will provide season-long control of Red Imported Fire Ants.”

Residual barrier treatments are effective at containing an isolated infestation when used properly and adequate coverage is achieved. Insecticidal baits are the most effective for long-term control, because they will be fed on and shared throughout the nests. “It is important to use the right bait for your target species,” Tredway says. “It is also important to understand that a single treatment is not sufficient if your goal is long-term control or local eradication.”

Dr. Michael Merchant, professor and extension urban entomologist at the Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension Service, prefers granular fire ant baits because of their relatively low toxicity, specificity to fire ants and lower per acre costs. “These are typically broadcast at a rate as low as one to one-and-a-half pounds per acre. When treating larger areas, we can sometimes apply as infrequently as once a year, but on golf courses you may want to apply in the spring and fall to ensure top control. Amdro, Extinguish, Distance, Advion and Come and Get It are some of the more commonly used products.”

For tee boxes and greens where tolerance for ants is very low, some golf courses use granular insecticides containing bifenthrin or fipronil, Merchant says. These products provide six to 12 months of control. Cost, however, will be much higher than the broadcast baits.

Puckett advocates the use of fire ant baits for population suppression, “and there are many baits on the market that are very effective,” he adds. “Additionally, there are lots of contact-insecticide granules available for use.”

John Torsiello is a Torrington-Conn.-based writer and frequent GCI contributor.