Fall Gardens – Get Prepped and Prepared

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Someone recently asked me about colors in the landscape and in the garden markets right now. All the golds, rusts, and purples made them feel like Fall, with the holidays just around the corner. Pansies, pumpkins, fancy winter squash,Pansy leaves turning from green to red – it is all something new (and good!) to look forward to. Lots of plants that work in the upper end of our hardiness zone can be planted now. To find the zone for where you live, explore the tool at Hardiness Zones.

I like to start with cool-season annuals like pansies and snapdragons which are surprisingly tough, repeat performers. Kales and mustards are great for salads plus a pop of color for the fall that take the garden right through spring. Raised bed planters help me keep the weeds from the lawn at bay. There is just another garden resident that likes the raised beds as much as I do, even if they are unwelcome. Fire ants. They love to move into “Pre-fab housing” that the containers provide. My enthusiasm took hold of me and I started planting, prepping the raised beds for Fall with rich compost and some slow-release fertilizer for the transplants’ active growth this month – without gloves. While some fall veggies and pansies were planted, I also disturbed hidden nests and received the accompanying stings. It could have been worse but enough stings to remind me of the benefits of protection even without the tell-tale evidence of a solar collecting top mound.

The red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, continues to spread across North Carolina due in part to favorable climate conditions that aid its natural spread. Eradicating fire ants is difficult and not really practical in many cases. However, you can manage infestations and reduce the risk of getting stung. Not all ants are fire ants, and identification is important for pest management purposes. Adult red imported fire ants are reddish to dark brown and occur in five forms: (1) minorFire Ant workers, about 1⁄8 inch long; (2) major workers, about 1⁄4 inch long; (3) winged males and (4) males, each about 1⁄3 inch long; and (5) queens, about 1⁄3 inch long. Fire ant mounds vary in size but are usually in direct proportion to the size of the colony. For example, a mound that is 2 feet in diameter and 18 inches high may contain about 100,000 workers, several hundred winged adults, and one queen. If you break open an active fire ant mound, you typically find the “brood” – whitish rice grain-like larvae and pupae. These immature ants will eventually develop into workers or winged adults.

The lifespan of red imported fire ant workers depends on their size. Minor workers may live 30 to 60 days, media workers 60 to 90 days, major workers 90 to 180 days, and queens may live two to six years. Complete lifecycle from egg to adult takes between 22 and 38 days. In the southern US, as many as 97,000 queens may be produced per acre of infested land per year.

The sting of the red imported fire ant possesses venom of an alkaloid nature, which exhibits potent necrotoxic activity. Approximately 95% of the venom is composed of these alkaloids, which are responsible for both the pain and white pustule that appears approximately one day after the sting occurs. The remainder of the venom contains an aqueous solution of proteins, peptides, and other small molecules that produce the allergic reaction in hypersensitive individuals. Worker fire ants will attach to the skin using their mandibles and will subsequently lower the tip of the swollen rear part of the abdomen into the victim. Thus, fire ants both bite and sting, but only the sting is responsible for the pain and pustule To find out more reliable information about controlling Fire Ants, check out Red Imported Fire Ant in North Carolina, and this very informative video from NC State Extension.