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O.C. Taking Sting Out of Fire Ant Invasion

Insects: The two-year battle has gone so well that officials are now talking eradication.

April 28, 2002|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County's war on the red imported fire ant is yielding promising results, with the vast majority of infested sites that have received the full chemical barrage testing clean and the number of new reported colonies falling.

In fact, the two-year, multimillion-dollar battle has gone so well that authorities say the county may be able to accomplish what few experts thought possible: eradication of the fast-moving, resilient pest that can take over entire neighborhoods.

"We're kicking their rear," said Richard Bowen, program manager for the Orange County Fire Ant Authority. "But we've got a long way to go."

Indeed, while 94% of the sites that have been treated for a year with chemical birth control are now ant-free, there are still 21,768 colonies that are at some stage of the process.

What's more, Bowen said the state's budget crunch could threaten his agency's funding. In February, the Legislative Analyst's Office suggested cutting $8 million that 11 county ant-control programs statewide are expected to receive in the next fiscal year.

Orange County is at the heart of California's fire ant invasion, which landed in the state in late 1997 on nursery stock and beehives from the South.

But unlike in the South, especially Texas, where the infestation is out of control, California's dry climate has helped contain the ants' spread. Fire ants need moisture to survive and reproduce.

A computer analysis of Orange County's ant colonies shows that 98% of new sites are found within a mile of existing ones.

"In California's case, the lesson may be that if you get on it fast and you do a great job in surveying where they are, you've got a chance to get rid of it," said Dave Williams, a fire ant researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Florida.

"If you twiddle your thumbs for four or five years before you attack, it's going to get away from you.

"I can't say whether [Orange County] will be able to completely eradicate it. But I'd say that you're on the right track."

In the last year, the number of new ant colonies in the county has steadily declined--from 2,642 discoveries in August to 79 last month, a drop that isn't entirely due to weather.

That number is less than half what was reported in March 2001.

Most of the newest finds are in wetlands, away from residential areas.

That's good news too, because a single ant colony can contain more than 300,000 aggressive, stinging and biting ants.

Bowen said his agency hasn't taken a report of a human sting or bite in nine months. In the summer of 2000, he was getting one report a week.

"Because we're not finding them in backyards like we used to ... people think that the fire ants are gone because they're not seeing them," Bowen said. "But they're still out there."

And the search continues.

"We're looking everywhere--all of Orange County," said Kelly Pinion, a zone coordinator for the fire ant authority.

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