Fire ants are on the move* Earlier this year, Mariner Health Care, the nation's third largest long-term healthcare company, settled for $1.875 million with the family of a 73-year-old resident who died after fire ants swarmed his bed in the early morning hours of July 26, 2001. Last year, a Florida jury awarded $1.2 million in a similar case involving a 93-year-old woman who was stung by fire ants in her nursing home bed.
While still relatively uncommon, such fire ant attacks in long-term care facilities have garnered much media attention in recent years. These stories illustrate how devastating a fire ant infestation can be and, in some cases, illustrate how difficult it can be to prevent. Records from the Mariner case showed that fire ants had infested the facility for years, despite weekly fire ant treatments in resident rooms by a contracted pest control company.
So how can you protect your residents from fire ants? Because of the threat to human health, watchful prevention is essential. The first steps to preventing fire ant attacks are to understand fire ant behavior and gauge your facility's risk for infestation.
Fire ants never set out to sting humans. But they will become very aggressive when defending themselves and their colony. As fire ants forage for food and water sources, anyone perceived to be a threat could quickly become a victim of a multiple-sting attack. Long-term care residents are among the most vulnerable to major attacks because they often are unable to move quickly (if at all). Therefore, any encounter with these insects can quickly escalate in severity.
Weather, soil type, geography, and other variables can affect a facility's risk for fire ant infestations. These pests infest some 310 million acres in 12 states: California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Left alone, the insects expand their territory approximately three miles per year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, America's fire ant problem could be getting worse; its research confirms that fire ants are adapting to new climates and infesting new territory across the country. Facilities in the aforementioned geographic areas are at the most risk for fire ants during the summer months, but they may appear earlier and/or later depending on local conditions. Wet conditions can amplify fire ant populations.
At-risk facilities can deter fire ant problems by implementing the following measures as part of a comprehensive fire ant management plan:
- Seal any cracks, holes, and other potential entry points in the exterior masonry (figure 1).
- Trim vegetation at least 18" away from the building structure because contact with the building provides a conduit to entry (figure 2).
- Keep the roof, gutters, and downspouts free of debris.
- Repair leaks and other excess moisture sources.
- Quickly clean up any food debris in common areas.
- Ensure that the exterior grade diverts surface water away from the facility.
- Continually monitor landscape garden beds for fire ant mounds.
- Always be on the lookout for signs of fire ants when observing long-term care residents. This simple extra step can stop a fire ant incident before it starts.
While such prevention methods are preferred, an existing fire ant presence in or around your facility will call for immediate corrective action, which probably will include the application of pesticides or pesticidal baits by trained and certified professionals. Certain off-the-shelf pesticide products are available for in-house use, but be aware that improper treatment can cause fire ant mounds to divide and multiply, aggravating the problem. Most professional providers will offer a free inspection to help determine the best course of action.
Keep in mind, too, that chemicals alone will probably not be completely effective in fighting fire ants. The ideal situation is one of ongoing monitoring and prevention by the facility staff, with rapid corrective action by a trained professional when fire ant evidence is reported. This "one-two punch" will help keep your residents safe and your facility out of the headlines.
Frank Meek, BCE, is Technical Director for Orkin, Inc. As a board-certified entomologist and an 18-year industry veteran, he is an acknowledged leader in the field of pest management. For more information, call (800) 675-4669 or visit www.orkin.com/commercial. To send your comments to the author and editors, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To order reprints in quantities of 100 or more, call (866) 377-6454. *This is the third of four seasonal pest-management articles to be offered by Orkin Commercial Services in Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management in 2005.