Asheville Daily Planet, August 15 2020

I was half-listening to local TV news when Rex Hodge came on:  “Fire ants are making their mark in the Great Smokies, in national forests…anywhere the soil is disturbed and there’s sun.”

My hands trembled.  My breathing changed.  I was in a PTSD flashback.

The scene was my side yard in Dallas many years ago.  I was looking down benignly on a brand-new ant mound.  I’d always appreciated ants.  They’re solid citizens.  And I enjoyed watching the bumbling stragglers walk the length of pencils on my desk. 

Hodge was gone, but my fists still clenched as I remembered.  My indulgence let that beady-eyed horde gain a foothold – no, a beachhead – outside my house.  Soon I counted 13 mounds.  And then they came inside.  Their elites, it seems, live on protein – which includes, for example, the protein found in dirty clothes.  Peace with ants outside, ok; getting stung in my bathroom closet, no sir..

I went to a garden supply store, where I was assured that poison bait was best.  Worker ants, they said, would take the poison to the queen.  He was flippant, like the queen’s personal taster was on the payroll.

He left out a few details.  The granules must fall so softly that the workers just happen upon them: “Hark!  What’s this marvelous new food so near?  We must take it to the queen!” 

The truth is this: While the ordinary ant is said to have an unmeasurable IQ, the fire ant – which practices absolute post-invasion genocide on other ants – is more cunning still.  For one thing, they link their nests with tunnels, so when they become irritated by such as poison bait littering about, the workers pick up the queen and her brood and move them.  Then next morning, the guerillas have opened a new base.  I must have poisoned 30 hills, and I don’t think the body count even reached one queen.  And oh yes, most nests have multiple queens.

Another truth:  You can’t win.  The fire ant, you see, has an amazing sex life.  They mate 10 months out of the year, whereas ordinary ants mate only 1-2 months a year.  And they mate in the air, so the female can pick her next home anywhere, even in areas previously declared as safe. 

Fire ants can move up to 30 miles a year on their own and farther when aided by loads of nursery stock.  They’ve hopped to California that way.

A University of Florida insect pathologist said: “The thing people in this country have to learn is that they’re going to have to learn to live with the fire ant….We couldn’t eradicate this thing with an atomic bomb.”

My flashback replayed the day I abandoned civilized warfare.  I was kneeling in a flower bed when dozens of ants struck at once.  My dark side suggested gasoline, and millions of them went up in flames (no exaggeration since as many as 250,00 live in each hill).  But I knew I wasn’t fighting to win.  I knew by now it was an eye for an eye.

The fire ant is no ordinary adversary.  There are just too many of them, and they are organized and tireless and smart.

And fearless.  Their unchanging assignment is aggression.  Every day is D-Day.  And they aren’t sneaky about it, either.  Insects are supposed to hide out by day and do their mischief by night.  They’re suppose to cower on the underside of leaves, eat floors from below and scurry about in dark kitchens.  Insects aren’t supposed to attack a barefoot boy on his lawn in broad daylight.

They grip the skin in their jaws, and unlike other ants, they thrust their stingers deep and inject their painful venom for up to 25 seconds.  This unusual poison prevents white blood cells from reaching the sting, leading to local infection and burning pustules. 

Ultimately, I adopted a simple tactic:  keep them moving.  Don’t let them settle in and start new colonies.  I drove sticks into the openings, the ants were annoyed and moved on. 

Moved on where?  Well, to my neighbor’s yard, I suppose.