An incident last month in Carrollton, TX highlights the need for consistent fire ant control, the sort of service residential pest control companies excel at. In this case fire ants invaded a transformer box in a residential area, resulting in a power surge that cost nine surrounding households thousands of dollars. The resulting surge damaged sensitive electronics including garage door openers, dishwashers and microwaves.
Fire ants pose problems for electrical equipment throughout their range in the southeastern US, and now in parts of California. Pad mounted transformers, like the one damaged last month in Carrollton, air conditioning units, traffic controllers, swimming pool pumps and just about any outdoor electrical equipment is at risk.
Why electrical equipment? There are several theories and some data to explain the fire ant's apparent affinity for electrical wiring, switches and equipment. Research done at Texas A&M University in the 1980s showed that fire ants are attracted to the electrical fields that surround wires and especially relay switches. In addition there is some evidence that ants that receive shocks at a relay switch point, for example, release an alarm pheromone that draws other ants into the site. Finally, ground mounted electrical equipment is often warmer than the surrounding soil and probably attracts fire ants to build mounds nearby, especially during winter months. All these things add up to big problems with fire ants (Note: other ant species can cause the same types of problems, presumably for the same reasons).
Why don't utility companies just treat these boxes? Many utility companies do treat any transformers where they find evidence of fire ant activity, but the treatments have a limited life, and the numbers of transformers out there (in the millions) are overwhelming. It is just not economical or practical to treat all electric utility equipment, not to mention every air conditioning unit out there.
Guess where that leaves you as PMPs? It leaves you at the forefront of protecting your customers' homes and property. After working with utility companies and the military for several years on these problems I concluded that the best protection for sensitive equipment is ongoing, thorough fire ant control on the properties where such equipment is located. No other approach works as well.
Residential monthly or quarterly service is an ideal time to provide landscape fire ant control. It's easy for the average homeowner to overlook a regular fire ant inspection and treatment, but building this service into regular pest control treatment provides superior protection against these problems. If your routine pest control service does not provide an option for regular fire ant control you might be missing out on a valuable and useful service for your customers.
It's important to note that landscape fire ant control does not mean treating fire ant mounds piecemeal, only as they are observed. This is the most common, but not the most effective, approach. Landscape fire ant control means using broadcast baits (MaxForce®, Amdro®, Extinguish® and similar products) or granular treatments (usually products containing fipronil or bifenthrin) over the entire area to be protected. Only this approach will control the small colonies that are frequently missed by individual mound treatmens. Only landscape fire ant control will free you and your customers from continually being on the defensive against these ants. For more information about using baits as part of a landscape fire ant control program, see Extension publication B-6099, Broadcast Baits for Fire Ant Control.