Nothing ruins a fun day in your backyard like a fire ant sting (or, more likely, many fire ant stings at once). If you have a fire ant problem, here’s how to get rid of fire ants in your yard so you can protect yourself and your family.
You can use chemical fire ant treatments or try eco-friendly home remedies. We’ll go over both methods to help you develop an effective pest control plan.
- How to identify fire ants
- How to get rid of fire ants with pesticides
- How to get rid of fire ants naturally
- How to prevent fire ants
- Are fire ants dangerous?
- FAQ about getting rid of fire ants
- When to call an exterminator
How to identify fire ants
Fire ants are known for their bright red or reddish-brown color. They range in size, but in general, they’re pretty small for ants, at 1.5 to 5 millimeters long. That’s about the size of a sharp pencil point to about the width of a pencil eraser.
Fire ants are an invasive species from South America. They’re often referred to as red imported fire ants, or RIFA for short. Don’t mistake red imported fire ants for other red ant species.
Fire ant mounds are distinct from other ant mounds because there’s no hole on top. Fire ants push soil up from underground to build their anthills. Workers enter and exit the nest through underground tunnels that can extend several feet out from the mound.
You’ll usually find fire ant mounds in flat, sunny areas and near water sources. The mounds can reach up to 2 feet high if left undisturbed.
The most noticeable thing about fire ant behavior is how extremely aggressive they are. If you disturb a fire ant nest, huge numbers of them will swarm out to attack you. Their stings are extremely painful, and they can cause an allergic reaction.
Fire ants have a habit of splitting off from their colonies and forming new ones. Multiple mounds in different areas of the yard could mean fire ants. If you treat fire ants without eradicating the whole colony, it can sometimes cause them to move to another area and build a new nest.
How to get rid of fire ants with pesticides
According to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, the most effective method for getting rid of fire ants with pesticides is this two-step method:
- Step 1: Scatter fire ant bait products all around your yard, where worker ants will find them when foraging for food.
- Step 2: Drench the mound with liquid or granular insecticide labeled for use against fire ants.
The first step in getting rid of fire ants is to spread fire ant bait in all areas of your yard.
What is fire ant bait? Fire ant bait is a type of pesticide that combines a substance that attracts ants, often soybean oil, with poisonous chemicals such as hydramethylnon, indoxacarb, or spinosad.
How does fire ant bait work? The goal with baits is for worker ants to pick them up when they are foraging for food and carry them back to the nest. In the nest, the whole colony (including the queen) will share the “food” and the poison along with it.
Bait pesticides are slow-acting but extremely effective at wiping out the entire colony. You may not see results from baits for a few weeks or even months, but they can eliminate 80% to 90% of the colony in that time.
How to broadcast fire ant bait in your yard:
- Choose a bait made specifically for fire ants, as they are different from insecticides for other types of ants.
- Apply at the right time for the most effective treatment. Late August to mid-October is the best time of year to treat fire ants. Late afternoon or evening is the best time of day to spread bait because that’s when fire ants usually forage for food.
- Wait for a dry day to apply bait to your yard. The ground should be dry, and there should be no rain in the forecast for at least 24 hours.
- Follow instructions on the product label to make sure you use the correct amount of bait for your property size.
- Use a fertilizer spreader to broadcast bait across your lawn and cover large areas faster. Apply the bait across the entire yard, not only near fire ant mounds.
- Keep pets and children out of the yard for at least 24 hours after spreading fire ant treatment.
- Re-apply fire ant bait once or twice a year for continued control. Fire ants can be quite resilient.
The final step in the two-step method is treating individual mounds. You can use liquid or granular (solid) insecticides labeled for use against fire ant colonies.
Liquid mound drench:
- Poke a large hole in the mound with a dowel, broom handle, or similar tool.
- Pour the liquid insecticide into the hole after mixing it according to the product label. The product label also should tell you how much of the insecticide to use.
- Spray the insecticide in a circle around the mound using a hand sprayer. The circle should be about 6 to 10 feet in diameter.
Granular mound drench:
- Sprinkle insecticide granules all around the mound, about 3 feet out in every direction.
- Sprinkle the granules on top of the mound, too. The product label should tell you how much to use.
- Wet the mound and surrounding area after spreading the granules so the insecticide can soak into the ground.
Whatever type of insecticide you choose, always carefully follow the instructions on the product label. Keep pets and children away from the treated area for however long is necessary for the specific product you use. When in doubt, wait at least 24 hours.
How to get rid of fire ants naturally
While the two-step chemical method described above is the most effective way to eliminate fire ants, there are some natural home remedies that work against fire ants.
The most popular home remedy for fire ants is dumping boiling water into the mound. The hot water kills ants on contact and destroys the inside of the nest.
- Step 1: Boil a large pot of water.
- Step 2: Poke a hole in the fire ant mound with a dowel or broom handle.
- Step 3: Slowly pour the boiling water into the hole.
- Step 4: Repeat as necessary.
The best time to use the boiling water treatment is during the late evening when the fire ants should all be inside the nest.
Pouring boiling water is a free and eco-friendly method of fire ant control, but it’s not the most effective since it probably won’t reach the queen. This method only works about 60% of the time, which is still a lot, but not fool-proof, and the fire ants that survive will move to another spot and start new mounds.
Diatomaceous earth (DE)
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a powder made of the fossilized remains of tiny aquatic organisms called diatoms, which accumulated in rivers and lakes for over a thousand years and decomposed in the sediment. These diatoms are made of silica, which is the active ingredient of diatomaceous earth.
It doesn’t hurt humans, but the tiny particles damage fire ants’ exoskeletons, causing them to dehydrate and eventually die.
- Step 1: Poke a large hole in the mound.
- Step 2: Sprinkle DE powder directly inside the mound.
- Step 3: Sprinkle more DE powder all over and around the mound.
- Step 4: Repeat after rain or watering your lawn. DE powder doesn’t work after it gets wet.
Diatomaceous earth is not effective at exterminating the fire ant colony, but it will encourage them to pack up their things and leave, since it makes the area pretty much uninhabitable for them.
Natural ant baits
You can make your own DIY fire ant baits by mixing a sugary or protein-based food with a substance that poisons ants. Natural baits work the same as chemical baits, just without the chemicals.
Here are some substances you can use as poison in your homemade fire ant baits:
- Baking soda
- Boric acid
- Artificial sweeteners
After you make your own ant baits, place several of them near the nest and any area of the yard or home where you’ve frequently seen fire ant activity. The ants will take the bait deep into the mound where any ants that eat it will die, including the queen.
Soap decomposes the wax coatings that fire ants use to retain water. Without that exoskeleton, ants dehydrate. Here is how to create a soapy water mixture.
- Step 1: Mix 1 tablespoon of liquid dish soap or ¼ cup Castile soap with a quart of water. Add 1 teaspoon of any cooking oil to increase the solution’s effectiveness.
- Step 2: Poke a large hole in the top of the fire ant mound.
- Step 3: Slowly pour the soapy water solution into the mound.
- Step 4: Put the soapy water solution in a spray bottle to spray ants you see outside the nest.
- Step 5: Repeat as needed.
You can add cooking oil to your soapy water solution, and the oil will suffocate the ants. The water will help spread the mixture, increasing the effectiveness.
How to prevent fire ants
If you don’t have fire ants yet or you just got rid of them, it’s time to think about prevention. There are simple steps you can take to keep fire ants out of your yard, home, and electrical equipment.
How to keep fire ants out of your yard
Fire ants’ favorite habitats are open, sunny areas. They need a water source to survive and often build nests near ponds, rivers, and other natural bodies of water. It’s common to see them nesting in or around decaying logs and tree stumps, too.
Eliminate these conditions wherever you can to make your yard less appealing to fire ants. Here are some things you can do:
- Break up open space in your yard with landscape features so fire ants don’t have room to build their extensive colonies.
- Keep your yard dry with proper drainage and infrequent watering. At most, water your lawn with 1 inch of water once a week so the soil has time to dry out in between.
- Remove decaying wood such as logs, fallen branches, or tree stumps from your yard as soon as you can.
- Fertilize your lawn on a regular schedule so the grass grows thick and healthy. Fire ants have a harder time building their nests in dense grass.
If you’re really serious about keeping fire ants out of the yard, broadcast fire ant bait once or twice a year before the ants ever have a chance to move in.
How to keep fire ants out of your home
Fire ants prefer to nest outdoors most of the time, but that doesn’t prevent them from wandering into your home in search of food.
Here are some steps you can take to keep fire ants out of your home:
- Create a barrier around your home’s foundation with a chemical insecticide labeled for use against fire ants.
- Spread ant repellents in front of possible entry points, such as doors, windows, pipes, or vents. You likely already have several ant-repelling substances in your cupboard.
- Seal any cracks and crevices in your foundation with caulk, concrete, epoxy, or another airtight sealant.
- Trim trees and bushes regularly to keep branches away from the house, as ants can use any branches touching your home as a bridge to get inside.
- Store food securely so there’s nothing to attract fire ants inside. Keep your food in the fridge or in airtight containers in the pantry. Clean up crumbs and throw away food waste immediately.
How to keep fire ants out of electrical equipment
Homeowners often find fire ants nesting inside electrical equipment such as transformer boxes, circuit breakers, switch boxes, and air conditioners. Fire ants bring soil inside the equipment to build their nests, causing corrosion, short circuits, and other electrical issues.
Here’s how to keep fire ants out of your electrical equipment:
- Seal entry holes with glue.
- Protect circuitry with Arinix tape, a product recommended for this purpose by the USDA’s Extension Foundation and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
- Apply fire ant insecticides around electrical units. Don’t spray insecticides inside electrical equipment because you could cause damage.
Are fire ants dangerous?
Besides causing damage to your lawn and electrical equipment, fire ants can be a pain (literally) to you. The painful fire ant stings cause skin irritation and small blisters that look like pustules. For most people, the damage doesn’t go beyond that. But some people have severe allergic reactions that can include trouble breathing, swelling of the throat, and even anaphylactic shock.
If you suffer one fire ant sting, you’ll probably suffer many more. Each fire ant stings several times during one attack, and they tend to attack in swarms. If you suffer a fire ant sting and don’t have a severe reaction, you can reduce the pain of the blisters in these ways:
- DON’T SCRATCH blisters caused by fire ant stings. Scratching will cause more pain and irritation and increase the risk of infection.
- Apply a cold compress to the irritated areas of your skin on a cycle of 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off.
- Apply hydrocortisone cream to reduce itching and stinging.
- Apply antibiotic ointments to prevent infection.
FAQ about getting rid of fire ants
Do fire ants damage grass?
Your grass can be damaged by large fire ant mounds, but will recover quickly once the mounds are removed. Fire ants are more of a nuisance to people and animals than they are to grass.
Do fire ants have natural predators?
Fire ants do not have any natural predators in North America. South America is a different story! There is a type of fly known as the phorid fly, or the ant-decapitator fly that is a parasite to fire ants and kills them.
What is ant chalk?
Ant chalk is an insecticide that contains deltamethrin and cypermethrin. While the active ingredients are legal in the United States, ant chalk itself is illegal because it never received the required regulatory approval.
When to call an exterminator
If you don’t have the time or energy for repeated, extensive fire ant treatments, you can hire a local pro to handle the infestation for you. Professionals have better tools and chemicals than homeowners have access to, and they have expertise.
Remember that one of the best ways to prevent fire ants in your yard is to keep your grass healthy. Let a local lawn care pro take care of your grass for you so you’ll never have to worry about fire ants in the first place.