What in the world were we thinking?
I am becoming increasingly convinced that if I dig just two feet down at any place in my yard, I will dig into a huge underground sea of fire ants. It may spread for miles and miles.
Why else would it be that I can dump granules “guaranteed to kill the queen, destroy the colony, and wreak general mayhem on antdom,” and within hours find a new hill just two feet away from the old one?
The ants just scoff at my efforts and move a few doors down. I swear that I’ve heard a chorus of subterranean laughter as I patrolled my yard for ant hills.
And the sad part is that we brought them here on purpose! They were supposed to do away with boll weevils.
As any cotton farmer knows, the weevil is a tiny beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers. It migrated into the United States in the late 1800s and quickly began to do terrible damage to the cotton crop all across the South. Some scientists say it has been the single most destructive pest in the history of U.S. agriculture.
The weevil came here from South America, so scientists who were fighting its early spread decided to look there for a natural enemy. Studying up on it, they found out that big red ants just loved to eat weevils, so they caught some and turned them loose in Texas.
It seemed to work. The Abbeville Meridional reported in October 1904 that agriculture authorities in Washington had announced that “there has been no loss of the ants which were brought to Texas from Guatemala. … The department declares the ants are doing well, eating their fill of the pest.”
“This will be pleasant news to Texans,” the Meridional forecast, and also pointed out that the experiment “will also be interesting to others who have studied the principals of the survival of the fittest.”
Guess who “the fittest” turned out to be. Not only do fire ants eat boll weevils, but a whole lot of other stuff. According the U.S. agriculture department, today we spend more than $5 billion annually for treatment of bites on people, for crop and other damage they cause — and for “control” of the pests. Swarming ants can kill small animals and can sting humans like the devil.
(Yes, sting. The ants bite just to get a good grip on you. Then they stick you with a stinger full of poison.)
And it looks like the boll weevils were survivors, too. The ants feasted on them, but the weevils kept spreading — so much so that by 1915 a state convention of cotton growers adopted a resolution calling for no cotton at all to be planted in Louisiana for a year. The farm experts said fire ants couldn’t eat them all, and it was the only way to get rid of the weevil infestation
They said planting corn instead of cotton for a year would also help diversify Louisiana crops and would push up the price when the next cotton crop was planted.
As one large farmer argued, even if the planters took a bit of a loss in 1915 by not growing cotton, it would be no worse than the losses already brought on by bugs and exhausted land, and “as they will have no boll weevil and a good price, they could easily pay any balance they might owe [when the 1916 crop came in].”
As we know, that didn’t work either; it was not until we began using DDT and other chemicals years later that farmers finally were able to almost eradicate the weevil.
It turns out the DDT wasn’t such a great idea, either. It was banned in the United States in 1972, but we’ve got some other stuff to spray on the weevils. Meanwhile, fire ants continue to make a good living on the farm and in my yard and point their little antennae at me and laugh out loud when I try to do something about it.
I suppose I can take some solace that those killer wasps that everyone is talking about haven’t got here yet. But they probably will, and I have a pretty good idea of where they will land first when they do.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, Cajuns and Other Characters, is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.