Fire Ants Take the Fun Out of the Backyard 
              By ESTHER SCHRADER, Times Staff Writer

Report of  December 5, 1998 

You want to live in California for the great outdoors, the great parks, the great backyard of your suburban home where you can roughhouse with your kids on a lawn still green in December.  You don't want to be told a tiny red ant poses a threat to all that.

Which is why a six-legged newcomer to Southern California, a mandibular creature from South America with a venom that can kill, is not being greeted with open arms. 

"I can't believe they're out here. I thought I'd left all that behind," said Chris Newman, who moved to California 10 years ago from Texas, where the imported red fire ant has long been a painful part of life. 
Now Newman lives about 20 yards from a field near Trabuco Canyon that state agriculture officials say has been colonized by millions of the aggressive pests. Fighting them will be nasty, brutish and time-consuming.

Worse, perhaps, the war may be unwinnable. And, if the experiences of other states hold here, the ants may take a bite out of the Southland's celebrated outdoor lifestyle. 

"Let's put it this way: If you have fire ants in your backyard, are you going to put a crawling baby on the ground?" said Robert Dowell, the chief entomologist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. 

"What you find is these ants eliminate the use of your yards for kids to play in. You don't have to go any further than that to have a                      real change in lifestyle." 

In 11 Southern states where the fight against the fire ant is a running battle, children are warned never to play outdoors without shoes on. Campers sprinkle campsites with pesticide before pitching their tents. Boaters can't get into their craft without brushing off the ants that crowd shorelines. Airport runway lights suddenly go dim when the ants take up residence inside their wiring.  And--in the worst cases--people with a severe allergy to the ant venom have died after inadvertently stepping on mounds and being swarmed by thousands of the territorial insects. 

"I don't go outside barefoot. Oh no, I can't do that," said Bill Rovira, 83, an Austin, Texas, retiree who could teach worried Californians why the scope of the fire ant menace belies the ant's size. 

Rovira came close to death last July when he stepped on a fire ant mound in his backyard that was obscured beneath a pile of leaves. Before he knew what had happened he had been stung by hundreds of the ants. 

Allergic to the ants like some people are allergic to bee or wasp stings, he swelled up over much of his body before he was saved by treatments at a local hospital.  "I told my wife that she should call [paramedics] because I'm dying," Rovira said. "I get allergy injections now, but I still get stung all the time. There's a battle going on here against these things, and I'm a dedicated enemy." 

There is no indication that the ant infestation in California approaches that in the South, where fire ants have killed off most other ant species and have changed human lifestyles. In a 30-square-mile area across three Southern California counties surveyed so far, ant experts have found more than 100 mounds, many 3 to 4 years old. That area alone, they say, probably contains thousands more.  Already two Orange County nurseries and an Indio turf farm infested with the ants are under state quarantine. Orchard owners are battling isolated outbreaks in Kern, Fresno and Stanislaus counties. State officials are printing fliers they plan to distribute to residents door-to-door to warn of the dangers the venomous ants pose to young children and pets. 

Suppressing the ant colonies may mean dropping thousands of pounds of granular insecticides from helicopters or planes in Orange and Los Angeles counties.  Even at that, today's children will be teenagers by the time the multimillion-dollar battle has been played out. And there are no guarantees that the ants, whose Latin species name means "invincible," can be wiped out. 

Hundreds of residents already are voicing their fears to public health officials.  "I saw these little red flags going up in the field and I didn't know
what they were," said Curt Yoder, whose Trabuco Canyon home is a block away from a field infested with the ants. "It's creepy. I'm staying away if I see them." 

What makes fire ants more insidious than other perilous pests is their love for environments like backyards.  Moisture loving, the ants flock to irrigated lawns, parks and highway medians. The broken ground of new developments provides natural spots for the ants to build their mounds, some of which reach the size of basketballs.  For reasons scientists do not understand, the ants are attracted to electrical fields. In states where the ants are a persistent problem, they frequently short-circuit airport lights, air conditioners and traffic signals. 

The ants, which eat most organic matter, also do more than $1 billion in crop damage per year, more than any other pest in the South.  "They're bad hombres. Oh yes, this is a bad one," said Michael Rust, professor of entomology at UC Riverside. "They are very aggressive. They have a very potent sting, and in areas of Texas and the Southeast where they have been able to gain a foothold, they have been able to cause major problems." 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been battling the ants in the South for 25 years. First spotted in Mobile, Ala., between 1935 and 1940--probably arriving on boats carrying produce from Argentina and Brazil--they spread rapidly to other warm-weather states, said Les Greenberg, a postgraduate researcher in entomology at UC Riverside. The ants can survive a few days of frost, but not cold winters. 

Which is to say the ants like this corner of the country for many of the same reasons people do. So, what can Southern Californians expect? Consider this: Schools in Texas, Florida and Louisiana routinely combat fire ant infestations in their play areas. In the wild, the ants feast on baby
 birds and swarm down the ears and throats of fawns. Quail populations have been severely reduced by the aggressive ants. 

Dave Doll, a father of five boys in Orlando, Fla., has become used to killing the ants in his backyard since he moved from California 14 months ago.  "When I moved out here . . . I saw ants and assumed they were regular ants, and people said, 'Oh no, don't go near them.' "  Doll said he has learned not to ignore the ants. He mows his lawn once a week, checking carefully for ant mounds. He regularly applies pesticide he buys at the local hardware store. And he doesn't let his children play outside without shoes on.  "We just tell them the consequences," Doll said. "If you mess around with these things and you get bit up all over the place, you're
going to regret it." 

Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved 

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