Believe it or not, some people in Georgia are happy to see fire ant mounds popping up on their property.
With the help of University of Georgia entomologists, some south Georgia farmers are reducing farming costs with the help of the fiery red pests.
UGA entomologist John Ruberson is studying the benefits of using no-till farming in cotton fields. Working at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Ga., Ruberson studies insect populations in south Georgia farm fields. And he found large declines in no-till cotton pest populations.
"No-till farming is just that. The land isn't tilled from crop to crop," Ruberson said. "We found that when the soil isn't disrupted, fire ant populations just skyrocket."
Ruberson said the no-till fields had noticeably more fire ant mounds than the traditionally tilled fields. But they had dramatically fewer cotton pest insects.
"Fire ants are predators. We see them traveling up the cotton plants in search of food," Ruberson said.
In cotton fields, a fire ant's menu consists of bollworms (corn earworms and tobacco budworms), armyworms and various loopers. These are all caterpillars that feed on the cotton plant's leaves or fruit and can eventually destroy the plant.
Fire ants have been reported to feed on other cotton pests, too, including stinkbugs and fleahoppers.
Tift County farmer Tim Ross is one of the farmers working with UGA entomologists and agronomists by keeping fire ants in his cotton fields.
"I actually appreciate them in my fields because they save me a little money," Ross said. "They give me a few extra dollars I would have spent on spraying pesticides."
Farmers typically have to spray pesticides up to four times a season to kill pests like bollworms. But Ross has been able to leave the pest control work to the fire ants.
Of course, there are down sides to having more fire ants around.
"Besides the risk of being stung when you scout your fields, fire ants allow cotton aphid populations to grow," Ruberson said. "Cotton aphids feed on the plant's sap and produce a sticky honeydew which makes the plant susceptible to sooty mold."
UGA scientists are continuing to study beneficial uses for red imported fire ants. But it's not popular work.
"Our research is progressing slowly, because funding is limited," Ruberson said. "Everyone's interested in getting rid of fire ants. Understandably, no one wants to fund projects that encourage keeping them around."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)