Marlis, an experienced gardening enthusiast, relocated from Southern California to Texas about twenty years ago. She was excited to have a larger space to plant the garden of her dreams. Today, gorgeous trellises support her climbing tomatoes and cucumbers. The spacious green lawn stretches from the house to the Texas hills, providing a playground for pets and children.

From the start, Marlis set out with every intention of maintaining a natural and organic garden that would use no – or close to no – chemicals. However, Texas proved to be a challenge, from the large creatures who tore holes in her garden beds to the numerous deadly mounds of fire ants that erupt each spring.

High-risk Effort, Temporary Relief

Large critters are kept at bay with a clever combination of fenced-in raised garden beds and a greenhouse. But when it came to the fire ants, Marlis was beside herself. Tromping through her yard with endless bags of kill-on-contact granular pesticide, she poured poison onto mound after mound, then scurried away to avoid the eruption of stinging fire ants trying to defend their nest as they carried their young to the surface. When a fire ant colony is disturbed, they pack up and move with amazing speed. But they don’t move far. Almost overnight, Like Whack-a-Mole, Marlis would soon see another mound pop up nearby.

Fight Fire With… Poison?? No!

Marlis faced the dilemma – did she risk exposing her kids and her dog to painful, perhaps deadly ants, or to harmful, poisonous chemicals?

Why not use chemicals to treat fire ants?

Chemicals that are deadly to fire ants have a similar effect on humans. Examples include DEET (diethyltoluamide), a neurotoxin whose action blocks activity in the central nervous system. Dursban (chlorpyrifos) is an organophosphate that targets the nervous systems of pests; it works by disrupting the electrochemical process used by nerves to communicate with muscles and other nerves, resulting in paralysis and death. Basically, the process by which the chemicals kill the pest is a chilling consideration, given that they may have similar effects on humans and larger animals. In many cases, this has resulted in a ban on their sale and use.

“Out in the grass,” Marlis laments, “I use the hard-core poison. The mounds always return nearby. If these nematodes can really take out the colony, that would be so amazing. It usually takes a bit after they’ve been knocked down for me to see them again, but I’d like to see them completely knocked OUT.”

But when it came to her edible garden of fruit and vegetable plants, Marlis had tried every possible natural remedy to drive fire ants out – from hot water, to high pressure hose blasts, to a strange mixture of molasses and orange oil. She would never consider using deadly neuro-toxic chemicals among her edible plants. “These fire ants are especially annoying in the garden, because my hands are constantly in the dirt, and THE ANTS BITE.”

Mother Nature’s Ideal Solution – Beneficial Nematodes!

Recently, a visiting friend shared a wonderful idea to combat fire ants: Beneficial Nematodes. Microscopic creatures, Beneficial Nematodes are natural predators to harmful insects; far more reliable than mixtures of toxic, man-made ingredients, they are also harmless to humans and pets.

When trying the Beneficial Nematodes for the first time, Marlis established her own little science experiment. “I put the Nematodes on five of the mounds and poison granules onto the other two mounds, to compare. What usually happens is that another mound pops up nearby after about a week. The poison never seems to kill them completely, so I was waiting.”

Marlis also had a recurring fire ant colony in a garden bed of vegetables. After only a couple of days she was astonished: “I soaked the mound in Fire Ant Control. It’s gone.” Instead of seeing the usual remnant of ants that survived any chemical onslaught, Marlis remarked, “There was not a single ant remaining on the treated mound. Seriously, that is CRAZY RARE.” What’s more, ten days later, the fire ants still had not set up their usual alternate mounds.

This is due to the efficient way in which nematodes kill their prey. The nematodes penetrate the insect’s body cavity through natural openings like the mouth, anus, or spiracles, or through areas of thin cuticle. The nematodes release a sym biotic bacterium, Xenorhabdus, from their gut into the insect’s hemolymph. The bacteria multiply rapidly, producing toxins and exoenzymes that immobilize and kill the insect within a few days. The bacteria also produce antibiotics and other substances that protect the cadaver from other microbes in the soil.

The nematodes feed on the bacteria and the liquefying host, and then reproduce inside the insect. Thus they establish a nursery for the next generation of nematodes.

Nematodes hate the light, which is why they move to the deepest parts of the mounds – toward their prey. Because these juveniles are alive and hungry, they move about freely, seeking pests to destroy. On the other hand, chemical pesticides are designed to avoid penetrating the water table; these chemicals stay right near the surface, close to where food grows, pets dig, and children play!

She also said she wished she had watched the mound for a longer time – it was amazing how instantly the fire ants evacuated the mounds with their eggs after pouring the nematode tea onto them.

[There really was no escape, as the nematodes would have already coated these creatures. The seven million nematodes swimming around in the concentrated tea would seek to penetrate any open orifices, striking the adults, their larvae and the eggs. This effective predator deposits a bacterium that paralyzes then kills the ants, before inhabiting their bodies and setting up a nursery.

After seeing the success of the Nematodes in dealing with fire ants, Marlis said, “I also plan to pour the nematode tea onto my garden beds for general pests. I want to see if those buggers are going to work down under the soil!”

Stay tuned to see what happens next in Marlis’ garden!

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