Fire ants have moved to South Carolina. Two years ago my brother, who lives near Florence, began to find them in his back yard. There were two kinds, he noticed: red and black. The red ants were bigger, but both were aggressive, hostile, angry creatures.
My brother lives near the Pee Dee River. On a map it looks like a stream of water that winds through the Great Dismal Swamp. In reality, the Pee Dee is an enormously wide swath of marshland with a stream that meanders through, changing channels at will. When it rains the river does not so much rise as spread out, sometimes for miles. It’s never reached my brother’s house, but sometimes the river inhabitants are forced to seek higher ground. They come into my brother’s back yard: snakes, alligators, an occasional wild pig. He keeps a gun in the hall closet and he’s a good shot. If the snakes and alligators are still able to navigate when he’s done, they head back to the river.
Fire ants, though, are a different story. They can’t be dislodged so easily, and they’re dangerous. They’ve been known to kill cattle in Texas. This summer my brother got too close to a fire ant mound. They went up his legs, stinging as they went. He did what he could to get them off him, but he was bitten hundreds of times.
That afternoon he sat on his deck, applying baking soda, hydrocortisone cream, benedryl, ice, whatever his wife could think of for his swollen legs. While he was waiting to see if he would live or die, he studied the ants. He noticed sentry ants around the perimeter of each mound. They were constantly on the move, patrolling, looking for intruders. Should a red ant come into black ant territory, a sentry would sound an alarm. Black ants would rush to the scene and fight the intruder until he was dead.
My brother wondered about this. It seemed the guards – he was calling them warriors by then – were protecting some wonderful thing down in the hole, and they would fight to the death to see it was not harmed.
When he thought he might live after all, he went into the house and put on a pair of long pants, heavy socks, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, a hat. He tucked his pant legs into the socks. He buttoned the shirt high against his neck. He went to the garage and got a shovel and a bucket. He approached the red ant hill, pushed his shovel deep into the mound, came up with a load of fire ants, dumped them into the bucket. Another shovel full, then another, until the bucket was full and spilling over.
He carried the bucket, red ants dripping down the sides, to the second mound and set it down. He dug deep into this mound, heaved a shovel full of black ants toward the red mound. Another shovel full of black ants out of the ground, a perfect toss into the red ant hole. Quickly, now, quickly, the ants were furious, he picked up his bucket and dumped the red ants into the black hole. Then he dropped the bucket and ran.
Such bedlam you’ve never seen before. War. Red attacked black, black attacked red. The two holes fairly sizzled with killing.
My brother only saw what was happening on the surface, which boiled with activity. From the sound that issued from the two holes, he believes there were battles of enormous proportions going on down there. He suspects that each group had a queen hidden deep in the ground, and they fought ferociously to save her.
The battle went on for hours. When it grew dark, he got up and limped into the house.
In the morning he went to check on his handiwork. Dead ants red and black littered the ground. The mounds appeared to have been abandoned.
He wonders if he may have found a way to eradicate all fire ants from South Carolina. And if he has, is there a way he can patent his invention, make some money on it. For now, he’s chased them out of his back yard. If they return – fire ants love the moist, humid climate of the Great Dismal Swamp – he knows what to do.