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Red Ants in a Vegetable Garden

By Barbara Fahs ; Updated September 21, 2017
Red ants can harm your plants and cause painful bites.
ants & ahises image by Marek Kosmal from Fotolia.com

Several types of red ants occur in the United States. Ants do not harm plants but carry harmful insects to the plant to feed from their excretions, so protecting your vegetables from any type of ants is a wise idea. Red ants can be fire ants, which can deliver a painful sting. Fire ants are typically tiny--up to 1/5 inch. They favor vegetable gardens, especially if you’re growing okra, potatoes, strawberries or corn.

Types of Red Ants

The red fire ant is known as Solenopsis invicta. It was accidentally introduced to the United States from South America in the 1930s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Invasive Species Information Center website.

Other types of red ants include the harvester ant, which is the same approximate size as the fire ant, and the common red ant, which is larger than the red fire ant, but can also become aggressive and bite humans, leaving a painful sting.

Many other ants are reddish-brown in color. They include the carpenter ant, field ant, pharaoh ant and sugar ant.

Damage Red Ants Cause

Perhaps the most serious damage the red fire ant causes to humans and animals is in the form of its bite, which injects poison into the skin, causing a painful welt with a white pustule in the center. Infection can occur. Red fire ants can bite humans, pets, livestock and wildlife creatures. They can cause blindness in cats and dogs when they bite their eyes.

Understanding Fire Ants’ Life Cycle and Habits

The red fire ant builds mounds in the soil that are up to 1 foot tall and 18 inches in diameter. You might think gophers made the mound because they are similar. Their nests are usually in sunny, grassy areas, and they prefer moist soil. When you mow the lawn over red fire ant mounds, it flattens them and causes a flat, bare area in your lawn. These ants can also build nests in decaying logs, underneath cement pathways, or in the walls of structures such as garden sheds. Each nest can have more than one queen, and it is essential to kill all queen ants to eliminate a nest. Queens are active between noon and 2 p.m. on warm days, so this time period is best for treating the nest with pesticides.

Controlling Red Fire Ants

The University of California IPM Online website recommends eliminating red fire ant colonies as the best method of controlling this pest. For residential invasions, ant baits are effective. UC lists the following commercial products for homeowners who need to control a red fire ant population: Amdro, Enforcer, Conserve, Extinguish and Extinguish Plus, Spectracide Fire Ant Killer and Spectracide Fire Ant Killer Plus Preventer Bait. Set out your baits when you see ants walking on the ground and when the temperature is between 70 and 90 degrees F. Ants will carry the bait contained in these products back to their nest, where other members will eat it and die.

Treating Fire Ant Bites

When they are disturbed and threatened, the red fire ant can sting multiple times, causing long-lasting, painful welts. When these ants are on your body, the first thing to do is to rub them off with your hand or a rag. To avoid infection, wash the affected area with mild soap and water as soon as possible. Apply isopropyl alcohol to the area to disinfect it. Then fill a washcloth with ice cubes and hold it against the bite for about 20 seconds. Avoid breaking the pustules open by refraining from scratching the site. The over-the-counter medication Benadryl can help to reduce the itching. Other home remedies include applying meat tenderizer, a paste of crushed aspirin or salt, tea tree oil, hydrogen peroxide, aloe vera gel or arnica gel.


About the Author


Barbara Fahs lives on Hawaii island, where she has created Hi'iaka's Healing Herb Garden. Fahs wrote "Super Simple Guide to Creating Hawaiian Gardens" and has been a professional writer since 1984. She contributes to "Big Island Weekly," "Ke Ola" magazine and various websites. She earned her Bachelor of Arts at University of California, Santa Barbara and her Master of Arts from San Jose State University.