availability of food and suitable nest sites. Colonies are considered mature when they reach three years of age and may contain as many as 230,000 workers each. Although there is much hearsay and misinformation concerning the fire ant, humans generally don’t like them for two reasons: the ants sting, thus their common name; and their moundsreaching up to eighteen inches tall in Texasinterfere with hay baling operations. The fire ant venom kills or immobilizes other insects which make up the fire ant diet and acts as an effective defense against larger animals. The sting provokes stronger reactions in some humans than in others, but generally produces a half day’s itching and a pinpoint blister. Being a farmer, I get stung often and fear a honey bee sting, say, or a yellow jacket sting much worse. Some people, however, do have severe allergic reactions, and in at least two cases, fire ant stings have resulted in death. So, basically, the fire ant is a nuisance, rarely harming people and even more rarely crops. Still, farmer pressure during the phenomenal spread of invicta in the Forties and Fifties caused the U.S. Department of Ageradicate the fire ant. The program was launched despite a National Academy of Sciences special committee report at the time which concluded that “eradication of the fire ant [i]s biologically and technically impossible, and inadvisable were it possible.” Eradication of the fire ant is “inadvisable” because it is a general predatora beneficial insect because it eats other insects. The fire ant is known to prey on the following insects, all of which can damage trees and crops extensively: termites, leafhoppers, ticks, lepidopterous larvae, sugarcane borers, webworms, nut leaf and leaf case bearers, hickory and pecan shuckworms, velvetbean caterpillars, soybean loopers, green cloverworms, and corn earworms. One study found that fire ants were eliminating the lone star tick from parts of Louisiana. When mirex killed most of the fire ants in one area of Louisiana, another study reported, crop losses to the resurgent sugarcane borers totaled 69 percent that year. Nonetheless, the USDA initiated the Imported Fire Ant Cooperative Federal-State Control and Regulatory Aerial Program in the early Sixties. Basically this program consists of dropping mirex from airplanes over all infested areas. The feds pay half the cost, the state a quarter, and local county citizens the remaining quarter. According to an EPA source, the biggest lobbies for continuation of the program have been Allied Chemical, now out of the program, and the airplane applicators. 4 The Texas Observer The aerial program smells of essence of boondoggle. While millions of dollars have been spent in the program, the fire ant continues to reestablish itself and thrive. In hearing testimony taken in 1974, William Hollaway, an entomologist and the EPA’s fire ant expert, testified that the standards of the USDA program are inadequate for an insect control program. He said, “There are no quantitative or other threshold criteria for establishing that a significant nuisance or economically damaging infestation exists in the area where the interest for treatment has been shown.” Hollaway also questioned the effectiveness of the actual poison. In one laboratory test, three fire ant colonies were fed only mirex for two days. Two out of three colonies died, he said, but the third colony survived and was completely normal after ten months. Hollaway cited another study which found that “well-fed colonies do not distribute the [mirex] bait throughout the colony, thus allowing these colonies to survive.” And, Hollaway testified, mating flights from areas in which mirex is prohibited or which miss their treatment can “cause an immediate reinfestation.” We got a taste of the aerial program’s effectiveness here on our farm in San Jacinto County, along the Trinity River. In 1974, the state’s agriculture department announced that mirex would be sprayed here. After writing Austin that we did not want mirex dropped on our farm, we got a letter reassuring us that our farm would not be sprayed. The letter said that someone would visit us to make sure of our farm’s boundaries. We never got that visit. When the day came to spray our part of the county, mirex rained down on our pastures, gardens, woods, and house like hail. The chickens grabbed it right up. The sheep and cows took in the pesticide with their forage. During this same operation, we witnessed aerial spraying over the San Jacinto River and Winters Bayou flood plains while both were flooding the bottoms. A short time later, a smaller plane came and dropped mirex on our farm again. Of course we complained, but, unable to “prove damages,” we had no recourse. The fire ants did not take long before coming back, however, as strongly established as before. The mirex program may be ineffective against fire ants, but damage to humans and the rest of the environment is tragic and far-reaching. Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring that chlorinated hydrocarbonssuch as those found in mirexare fat soluble and “deposits build up in the body in cumulative fashion. . . . The fact that [one] is not instantly stricken has little meaningfor the toxins sleep in [the] body, to become manifest months or years later in an obscure disorder. . . .” Dr. Earl Alley, a chemist for the state of Mississippi, confirmed what Carson said 16 years ago. He has testified that “mirex would be likely to remain in living and nonliving matter for longer periods of time than would such chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides as DDT, aldrin/dieldrin, and heptachlorpesticides which are noted for their persistence in the environment” and which are banned by the EPA. Basing his conclusions on his reading of reasearch concerning mirex, Dr. Charles Werster, professor of environmental sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said in a telephone interview that “there is a high probability that mirex causes cancer in humans.” Werster called aerial spraying of mirex “very dangerous.” Florida State University biologist Robert J. Livingston, whose research led Florida to withdraw from the USDA aerial program, testified that mirex “tends to accumulate readily in the fatty tissue” and that “there appears to be a relatively unlimited capacity of certain organisms to store mirex.” Livingston warned that residues of mirex increase “from the relatively minimal spraying levels to become very substantial levels in organisms in very short periods of time .. [via] the food web.” He added that “it has become apparent to me that mirex is rapidly concentrated . . . in organisms such as fish, crabs, and shrimp that are used for human consumption.” \(In an area of South Carolina which had not been sprayed, every aqtatic species that was tested contained Perhaps the most startling evidence against mirex, though, was released only a few weeks ago. In a study of human fatty tissues, samples were taken by the EPA throughout the Southeast: 40 percent of all persons tested had some level of mirex. According to the Associated Press, the state of Mississippi, which now owns the world’s only mirex plant, responded to the new information with “expressions of concern.” The EPA said only, “For the time being at least, a number of EPA officials who are aware of the preliminary findings do not believe they warrant a change in the agency’s regulatory position on mirex.” In Texas, the Department of Agriculture is preparing its fall aerial program. William Bowmer, the state’s spokesman for the program \(and the same man who wrote us saytold me over the telephone, “We’re also concerned, but Texas will continue to use mirex until it is banned or the registration is cancelled.” As for ourselves, we hope to avoid this year’s spraying. We will stick to simpler methods of control over fire ants: in frequently used parts of the yard, we get rid of the mounds by pouring boiling water directly on the colony. The writer was a newspaper reporter before he headed off to the piney woods to become a farmer.
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