June 18th, 2006
Our Friends the Fire Ants?

The upside of fire ants.

When those enemies of biodiversity, the fire ants, came marching in they cleared Texas pastures of chiggers and ticks, our suburbs of fleas and cockroaches. However, fire ants like moisture and our recent years of drought have driven them underground resulting in a such a resurgence of ticks that some Texas ranchers are wondering how to bring back the fire ants.

Of course, fire ants don’t just ravage populations of insects that humans find pesky. They kill young bird and reptile hatchlings and eat up wildflower seeds. They aren’t too kind to electrical wiring either.

In defense of the fire ants is Messina Hof Winery owner, Paul Bonarrigo, who says that having fire ants in the vineyards means he doesn’t have to use as much pesticide to protect his vines as he once did.

Entomologist John Ruberson is studying how fire ants loosen the soil with their many tunnels. Compacted soils make it difficult for plants to get optimum water and oxygen to their roots, which is why gardeners have embraced our friends the earthworms. But, our friends the fire ants? As the Dixie Chicks would say, “I’m not ready to make nice.”

— Via incandragon. The original article appeared in the June 12, 2006 edition of The Wall Street Journal. A reprint is available here.

by M Sinclair Stevens

5 Responses to post “Our Friends the Fire Ants?”

  1. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    Oh my gawd! I never thought I’d hear ANYTHING good about fire ants. I thought this was one thing in the world that was truly a black-and-white issue. Now you’re telling me there’s a shade of gray? I don’t know . . . I think I’m with you and the Chicks on this one.

  2. From M2 (Austin):

    The comments I received are interesting. By and large, the people who were able to view the damage caused by fire ants were the ones who wanted them wiped out … but then, the orginal article was *by* ranchers. So, I don’t know.

    I suppose the best answer is to get rid of the fire ants and bring back the native predators of the chiggers, ticks and fleas, but it may be too late for that.

  3. From r sorrell (Austin):

    I don’t think anything in the world could convince me that fire ants are a good thing. I hate them. I have not, however, ever been bitten by a chigger.

  4. From Annie in Austin:

    Wow, what a choice! I once read an article about a Texas family who had killed off all their fireants, and then their land became infested with scorpion. – apparently they were helping to balance each other.

    When I lived in Illinois, I plopped down on the grass to weed without giving it a second thought, but never do that here. There is always a sense of being on alert. This is not exactly a pastoral paradise, is it!

    I hope Paul Bonarrigo goes out among the fire ant mounds to help pick his own grapes, not placing that risk only on hired laborers.

  5. From Keith:

    Fire ants are just starting to show up in parts of Virginia. I suppose they are slowly getting acclimated to our weather. I have never been bitten by a fire ant and so I do not know how welcome I would feel if they cleared out all the ticks.

    I am also not aware of disease being transmitted by fire ants, so getting rid of the ticks would be a good thing. Just wary of the positive spin on fire ants.