Rational Care of Lawns & Ornamentals for Texas Homeowners

This article by Jerry Cates was first published on 12 March 2019, and last revised on 28 May 2021. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 20:02(02).


Keeping a home’s landscape in tip-top shape and free of pests doesn’t require herculean strength or extraordinary genius. Still, in the hot Texas summertime, doing the job consistently right can be a challenge. The rewards, however, are well worth the effort.

As with most things in life, there are right and wrong ways to handle landscape and yard care, particularly as those ways relate to what we generally call pests. Here we will be discussing what the author prefers to think of as “rational” pest management methods. Some of those methods may surprise you, because — while many in the pest management industry focus primarily on pesticidal remedies performed by their personnel — this writer has, for most of the forty plus years he’s worked in that field, focused instead on habitat modifications that are best carried out and maintained mostly by you, the homeowner or business owner. Done right, habitat modifications alone can solve most lawn, ornamental, and landscape issues. For the rest, control can usually be achieved using only minimal amounts of pesticides.

Crafting pesticide-centric resolutions to landscape problems may seem like a no-brainer. So much so, in fact, that — for most people — the subject is deemed unworthy of debate.  Because pesticides offer a quick fix, they are in great demand by today’s fast-paced culture.

I dare debate that wisdom…

As a rule, I’ve found that the positive results of pesticidal applications for most lawn critters are few and only temporary. The negative results, by comparison, are numerous and long lasting. Anybody who studies this question, and reasons carefully from cause to effect knows this is true. So, why doesn’t everybody think the way we do?

Simple. Few study these questions deeply. Fewer take that extra step to reason from cause to effect. But, really… who can blame them? It’s difficult to connect the negatives that result from pesticide usage to the quick fix pesticide applications that caused them.

That explains why most participants in this saga get sucked, unwittingly, into a vicious cycle, craving more quick fixes that — unbeknownst to them — only produce more problems. The ironic result? An ever-growing dependence on pesticides and a burgeoning list of unhappy control failures.

If you read this article through, you will get a chance to cover all those bases. Can you handle it? Let’s see…


Lemon Beebalm (Monarda citriodora). This wildflower, from the mint family, was photographed on the side of McNeil Road, in Austin, not far from the Austin White Lime processing plant. The roadside here is dusted daily with powdered limestone, creating an impoverished soil in which one would never think to plant a garden. As I travel throughout Texas I often find this species volunteering in the most unlikely places, even alongside domesticated flowers in gardens and lawns. M. citriadora is a native of the southern United States, and thrives in shaded, dry soils with high fractions of clay. Those characteristics stop most of our domesticated flowers dead in their tracks. Look it over. Isn’t it beautiful? The fragrance it emits is just as nice, with lemony overtones, mixed with earthy notes common to oregano. Those olfactory delights grow more stout as the flower ages. Chefs add its leaves and florets to salads and teas, vintners make it an ingredient in their wines, and distillers infuse it into their liqueurs, all because of the subtle aromas and tastes it imparts to everything it touches. As a medicinal, its infusions are used to treat colds, coughs, and fevers. Essential oils from its leaves and stems are high in citronellol, a natural insect repellent effective against fleas and chigger mites. Yet, to most, it’s nothing more than a weed to be plucked, crushed, and discarded. We can be shortsighted that way, not only with wildflowers but with most of the other wild things found in our gardens, lawns, and houses. That’s why I added it here, while we’re discussing beautiful things most people look upon with disdain, things of value only to those who take the time to smell the flowers, thank the bees that pollinate them, and appreciate the millipedes, earwigs, pillbugs and sowbugs that fertilize and purify the soil they grow in.


You may have gathered by now this article’s direction is toward putting a wee bit of a kibosh on pesticides. You’re right, but I’m only moved that way where it truly makes sense. I don’t count pesticides out for purposes only they can handle. Some fall into that category.

For example:

  • Fire ants in your grounds cannot be effectively controlled by simply applying habitat modifications, but the pesticidal remedy for these pests must be carefully chosen and handled just right if you don’t want to create more problems than you solve; I explain how you can do that yourself, later in this article. Yes, I’d happily service my clients’ yards for fire ants if it made sense to do so, but — my research has confirmed that, in most cases, this particular pest should best be treated by the homeowner to achieve consistent results that avoided the negatives accompanying typical fire ant control programs — so I explain, here, how to do the work on your own. It takes only 5 minutes a month, and a minimum of pesticide, and doing it the way I recommend protects your yard and home from many more pests than fire ants alone.
  • Termites in your yard, garden, and fence, that are not in your home, are best handled with habitat modification methods, but when they get into your home, pesticides must be used; I discuss that lightly later in this article, and in another article in greater detail. I’ve been deeply engaged in research into termite biology for over 40 years, and have been awarded multiple patents for termite detection, concentration, and control devices. Throughout my career I’ve tested every non-pesticidal termite control method and regimen available, without finding one that could be trusted to keep termites under control for very long. Oh, I’ve come close, as one article I wrote years ago testifies. Actually, the biological remedy described in that article works extremely well, just not for very long. Although it wipes out termite colonies to the very last termite, once that’s done, it too must fade from the scene. That allows new termite colonies to come in and take over. That’s the sticky wicket in termite control; if the remedy doesn’t consistently protect homes from new termite incursions — not just for today, or for a few months — but for a reasonable number of years into the future, it cannot support an iron-clad warranty. For that reason it isn’t, in general, worth using. Consequently, I and my staff regularly treat homes for termites using pesticides specially suited for that purpose. The treatment requires special skills and methods honed over 40 years of experience in that field, to ensure that the homes we treat are protected against future termite infestations, and our warranty against re-infestation and resurgence of termites in the homes we treat is the, longest, most comprehensive in the industry.
  • Rats and mice, whether in your yard and in your home pose the most serious epidemiological risk to you, your family, and your pets of any pest we know of. Over the past 20 years I’ve spent a huge amount of time and energy researching rodent biology, just to understand what matters and what does not where they and your health come into conflict. In the process I’ve developed specialized programs to bring them under control without endangering you, your pets, non-target wild animals, or owls, hawks, and other raptors in the process. A number of competing issues swirl around the topic of rodent control, and we’ve had to confront them all, just to do it right. It happens that rodents can and should be mitigated using habitat modifications in the grounds as well as in your home, but they must also be dealt with using specialized rodenticides (a kind of pesticide) carefully chosen to protect raptors, and dispensed in childproof and pet-proof devices that are regularly sanitized. We have developed a highly successful, specialized program for rodent control at homes and businesses that I describe in detail in another article.
  • Fleas in the yard and home have to be treated with pesticides. The pesticide of choice in the yard is biological (a nematode in the genus Steinernema) that should be applied carefully, with significant before-hand preparation of the yard. Inside the home, fleas must be treated with a cocktail of pesticides chosen to handle all stages of flea development, and the treatment must be performed by experienced, well-trained personnel in order to avoid control failures. Our research into flea biology spans decades of study and experimentation, leading to excellent results. Our experience in flea control allows us to provide the longest warranty against re-infestation and resurgence of fleas in the industry.
  • And, of course, there are many other cases where pesticides are the right choice, too. Bedbugs, for example (though not a lawn pest, worthy of inclusion in this discussion), must be treated with pesticides to bring their infestations to a halt, and despite a number of non-pesticidal bedbug treatment products and methods being advertised in the public media as being effective, I’ve not found any of them them reliable enough to justify a 6-month warranty against re-infestation or resurgence of the existing infestation. With the right combination of pesticides, properly applied, we’ve been able to provide just such a warranty with each of our bedbug treatments. Clothing moths, too, fall into the same category as bedbugs, as do German cockroaches in the kitchen (though American and smokybrown cockroaches can be partially if not wholly eliminated using habitat modification methods). Though problematic when misused, pesticides play important roles in Texas landscape management. We will discuss some of those in greater detail later in this article.

Much of the time, with the exceptions noted above and a few others not listed, habitat modification is the only approach needed. Furthermore, focusing on habitat modification vs. pesticides tends to achieve lasting results. That’s why we favor it. To understand why, one needs to delve deeply into the ecological and biological vagaries of each individual landscape problem. That’s the hard part, because  it takes a lot of time, patience, experimentation, and study to get there. The solutions we’ve discovered, all crafted from that base of knowledge, are discussed below. Putting those solutions into practice is what we do every day, and what you can also do, following in our footsteps.

But first, a word of caution. What follows is not exhaustive, for several reasons. Though with more than 40 years of experience working with Texas landscapes, I still don’t have all the answers. No. Not even close. Still, I’ve learned a few tips that most every homeowner in the state can apply, generally with great results.

New To Texas?

Let’s start by looking at a few of the organisms the typical Texas landscape hosts. It is common for me to be called to a home where the homeowner is being besieged by “bugs.” The first words I hear are some version of the following:

I’m new to Texas… I’ve never seen so many HORRIBLE bugs, and I HATE them!

It is only polite to address these concerns directly, right off, so my answer begins with a friendly Texas greeting.

Welcome to Texas,” I say, “We’re glad you’re here. So… where are you from?

Rude Awakenings

These days, people oftentimes move to Texas from somewhere on the west or east coast. If you’re newly arrived from California, or New England, especially, let’s face it… you’re in for a shock. We have a lot of native fauna you won’t be used to, and for most the experience is nothing short of a rude awakening.

Texas has a lot of insects, spiders, and even terrestrial crustaceans you may never have seen before,” I begin, “And, your first reaction may be, well,…those unfamiliar critters are bad, bad news, all the way around and then some.

They nod vigorously in agreement.

I continue. “Here’s some good news: over 99% of the insects, spiders, and crustaceans found in Texas homes and yards — organisms most call “bugs” — are much more beneficial than harmful.

That’s the honest, undeniable truth. It takes a bit of explaining, even to a lot of native Texans, because — to the majority of those I talk with — it’s counter-intuitive.

Texas Spiders

One of the most maligned families of organisms known to man is that of our spiders. Texas hosts over 900 of those eight-legged critters, nearly a third of the 3,400 found in North America. Of the 900 species found in Texas, only two (the brown recluse and black widow, click on the links for articles I’ve written about them) are harmful to humans and our pets. The rest, almost without exception, are our friends. So, do the math; for Texas spiders, 99.8% are beneficial.

How so? Because they work harder keeping genuine pests under control than any human exterminator ever could. Better yet, while the exterminator only comes once a month or once a quarter, they’re out there all the time, slaving away, tirelessly. Unless, of course, someone thoroughly soaks your property with a broad-band pesticide that kills every spider and insect in sight. Then, it can take months for things to return to normal, whereupon your eight-legged friends can resume their beneficial pursuits.


Lycosidae: field wolf spider (Hogna lenta); dorsal body; Graham M., East Texas---30 Mar 2008

Fig. 1. A field wolf spider (Hogna lenta), photographed by Graham M., in his yard in East Texas on 30 March 2008, who then kindly supplied the photo to the author. These spiders burrow in the ground and patrol our yards in search of insects. They do a much better job of keeping insects under control than any human in the pest control business could ever do. Records of humans getting bit by these spiders are almost non-existent, and many people keep wolf spiders like this as pets. Their venom is not considered dangerous. Of the 900 species of spiders found in Texas, only two are dangerous, and this is not one of those two.


I explain how good spiders can be to every new client. A common reaction to my spiel goes like this:

But just the other day, I found a huge spider, as big as my fist, on the floor of my garage! Please don’t tell me that’s a good thing…

Actually, and to the surprise of most folks, it is a good thing. Those big wolf spiders (click on the link for an article on one of these creatures) that live throughout our yards sometimes get forced out of their natural environments — here, in particular, the lawn — and into places where they really don’t want to be, like our garages and homes. When the lawn gets mowed, these spiders run like mad to get away from the mower. If the garage door is open, voila! one or several wolf spiders may take refuge there, where you can see them plain as day.

You may never see your ground-dwelling spiders while they’re in the lawn, because they hide so well in the grass. Seeing one on the floor of your garage, however, can be unnerving. Try not to panic, though. Their presence is vivid proof that your home’s yard is healthy. Having lots of these spiders, whose burrows aerate the soil, and whose patrols through the grass keep other organisms in your yard in check, is a genuine blessing. Too, when you see a large terrestrial spider like that, you can rest assured it isn’t one of the two spiders we consider harmful, as neither can be described that way.

So, what about the other organisms that people often complain about but that are actually more beneficial than not?

Here’s Some of the Rest…

What follows is a short list of our beneficial “pests,” arranged in alphabetical order:

Acrobat Ants. I’ve written several articles about this ant (click on the links here and here to read those articles), which you may find interesting. Homeowners often see them forming long lines on the outsides of their homes, or climbing the trunks of their trees. It is natural to be alarmed at that sight, but they don’t pose harm to homes, people or pets.


Acrobat Ant (Crematogaster spp); Temple, Texas, 04.19.10--dorsal view

Fig. 2. Acrobat Ant (Crematogaster spp); photographed by the author in Temple, Texas, on 19 April 2010, on the outside wall of a nursing facility. Acrobat ants have heart shaped posteriors attached dorsally to their pedicel. This allows them to swing their abdomen high above their heads in a threatening maneuver directed against predators, hence their common name. They often form long lines of ants on tree trunks and on the exterior walls of buildings. This causes most to fear they are up to no good. On the contrary, they are highly beneficial for their predation on pest organisms that defoliate our trees snd shrubs, and are harmless to humans, our homes and our businesses.


Due to their mutualistic relationship with aphids — as discussed further below — they do a great job protecting our trees, shrubs, and other plants from defoliating insects. But here’s the kicker: If you try to eliminate the acrobat ants in your yard, trees, shrubs, and home using pesticides, you face a never-ending battle that the ants should always win. Notice the word “should.” I used it because, if you ever win that battle, you will probably only do so because you’ve managed to soak your entire property with enough pesticides to kill not just the acrobat ants, but all the other insects and spiders there as well.

To those who think pesticides, alone, are the way to go, that seems a good thing. For those who really want to, it is possible, at least for a very short time, to create a spider-and-insect-free environment that way. But such a state cannot be maintained for long. Soon the acrobat ants will be back, and they’ll return in even larger numbers than before because now the aphids are out of control. Pesticides kill off aphid predators better than they kill aphids.

Acrobat ants don’t sting, their bites cannot — as a rule — break your skin, and they aren’t known to carry diseases affecting humans or our pets. Their presence protects your trees, shrubs, and other plants. Given all that, the author believes wisdom commends those who adopt a “Live & Let Live” attitude toward them.

Aphids, mealybugs, and scale insects. All of these are insects that you are likely to find in your yard from time to time, and all suck sap from trees, shrubs and other plants. The number of species they represent runs into the thousands. Many are common pests of food and fiber crops. Some are specialists that feed only on a very restricted number of plants, while others are generalists. Besides that, many also vector a number of viruses that plague certain plants. In commercial greenhouses and nurseries where plants are displayed and sold, these insects are considered among the most destructive pests of all.


Fig. 3. An aphid on a leaf, photographed in Canada by a retired university professor, who holds the copyright under the nickname WikiPedant and permits its use with attribution. Over 5,000 species have been described, and some 400 of these commonly feed on the sap of our trees, shrubs, and food crops. In our yards they should never get out of control unless pesticides — which typically are more effective against their natural predators than against them — are used in a misguided effort to kill them.


One particular species, the Rhodesgrass mealybug (Antonina gramina), abbreviated RMG, has been a serious pest of lawns and golf course grasses since being accidentally introduced, from its native habitat in Asia, sometime prior to 1942. It was so destructive of grasses that $millions were spent to bring it under control using pesticides, mostly to no avail. Finally, several of its known biological predators were imported to the United States, in hopes they would do the job as efficiently here as in that mealybug’s native land. That stratagem worked, for many decades, to the point that RMG was at one time believed to be fully under control. Today, however, it has returned to the list of serious pests of over 100 species of turf grass.

From the terse description of aphid, mealybug, and scale insect pests, it would appear contradictory for me to suggest they could possibly be more beneficial than harmful. Yet it isn’t, they are, and here’s why:

Unless you’re operating a large greenhouse or nursery, are managing a huge turf grass landscape, are responsible for keeping a golf course free of pests, or are planting acres of fiber or food crops, the small number of aphids, mealybugs and scale insects in your yard and on your plants should almost never become destructive enough to harm anything in a lasting way. On the contrary, not only do those organisms attract a host of natural predators that usually keep them in check, but many of them have mutualistic relationships with other insects (e.g., the acrobat ants mentioned earlier, and the carpenter and fire ants described below) that — in the process of protecting them — also protect the plants they are on from defoliating organisms that can cause much more damage than they do. Pesticidal control is difficult to impossible, depending on the species, and almost always kills their natural predators more efficiently than it kills them. That ends up, ironically, causing the targeted aphid, mealybug, and/or scale infestation to become worse.

Usually, when you see disfigured plants infested with these insects along with heavy deposits of honeydew and the sooty mold those deposits foster, a pesticidal treatment that failed is lurking in the background. For that reason they and their mutualistic protectors are best left alone.

Earwigs. These insects are members of the order Dermaptera, and are represented worldwide by about 2,000 recognized species. They look dangerous because of the forceps-like pincers that project backward from their abdomen, where we expect to see stingers on insects that sting. In actuality the pincers, which on the species found in Texas pose no danger to humans, are mostly used to capture prey, to facilitate copulation, and to defend themselves against natural enemies.


Fig. 4. An earwig (Forficula auriclaria) on a leaf, photographed by its copyright holder, Giles Gronthier (see his photography on flickr.com). Earwigs frighten people who mistake their prominent posterior pincers for stingers or worse. Those appendages are harmless to humans, and are used by the earwig to grasp prey and to facilitate copulation. This is a male, as the pincers on the male are more curved and distinctive than those of the female. Earwigs are beneficial organisms that recycle decaying plant matter and prey on plant defoliating insects.


Most earwigs inhabit tight crevices, such as found in bark and at the junction between a home’s foundation and the surrounding soil. The most common species found in Texas residential yards is the European earwig, Forficula auricularia, which was introduced to North America early in the 20th century. They inhabit cool, moist, dark and difficult-to-access crevices, and are active at night. They are scavengers that feed feed primarily dead plant matter, aphids, and other insects. For that reason, they form an important part of the environmental web that helps maintain a natural stasis within the ecological niche they occupy.

Carpenter Ants. These are insects in the genus Camponotus, and in certain parts of the United States the species of carpenter ants there can be as destructive of sound wood as termites. That’s why they are called carpenter ants, but though we tend to think of carpenters as builders, the meaning — for these ants — is destroyers, specifically destroyers of wooden structures such as trees and man-made objects constructed of wood. If you know this, and then find out you have carpenter ants in your home or yard, that discovery can be frightening.


Fig. 5. Carpenter ants and eggs, being studied under laboratory conditions. Note that these ants have a single node to their pedicels and that node is deltoid in shape, with the point of the delta projecting upward. The thorax is smoothly rounded on its dorsal surface.


So, are they really that destructive? Well, the answer to that question depends on where you are located, so it can be confusing. The confusion on this is not confined to John Q. Public, but abounds even within the pest management industry, and, in the opinion of this author, emanates from the fact that in cooler regions of the U.S., generally north of the 35th parallel, carpenter ants are forced to build well-constructed, more or less permanent nests they can occupy year-round, while in warmer regions, south of the 35th parallel, their nests tend to be temporary structures, crafted out of already rotted wood, that can be abandoned at will because they’ve not invested much energy in the construction of the nest.

In those cooler regions of the U.S. above the 35th parallel, a few carpenter ant species (some of which, by the way, are also found in Texas) are serious structural pests capable of causing damage to sound wood. Their strong mandibles aid them in excavating solid wood to create voids in which to nest. Most of those species, along with several others not considered structural pests, are also considered nuisance pests because they enter homes to feed on pantry and pet food. Further, even those that don’t generally forage inside homes may form large ant colonies in walls, hollow doors, attics, and roofing. Two renowned experts on carpenter ants, Laurel Hansen and John Klotz, authors of the definitive treatise on carpenter ants in the United States and Canada, describe those carpenter ant species in detail.

As Hansen and Klotz document in their book, Carpenter Ants of the United States and Canada, Texas hosts twelve species of carpenter ants that are reputed to be structural and/or nuisance pests:

  1. Camponotus americanus: found throughout Texas except the northwest corner of the panhandle, and the Trans-Pecos; described as primarily nesting in the ground, but sometimes nest in rotten logs and have been collected in structures by pest management professionals in Tennessee and Louisiana, though not in Texas.
  2. C. noveboracensis: known as the New York carpenter ant, isolated colonies have been recorded in central Texas; it nests in standing or fallen trees, and under rocks and in cow dung; their colonies are small and though both a structural and nuisance pest, they are not common.
  3. C. pennsylvanicus: the black carpenter ant, a rare species reportedly found throughout Texas except in the northwestern panhandle, the Trans-Pecos, and the southernmost tip of the state; described as nesting exclusively in wood, and reputedly the principal structural pest of the eastern and central United States and southeastern and south central Canada; it is the most abundant Camponotus species in the North Atlantic states and the Midwest; the main nests are usually found outside, with satellite nests inside within voids, under insulation, and in structural timbers; this author, as a youth living in Missouri, personally witnessed the significant damage these ants can cause in live trees, but although rare colonies are sometimes found in central Texas, I’ve never found them damaging sound wood here.
  4. C. caryae: sometimes found in northeast Texas, this species is described as nesting in structures but only in hollow areas such as voids.
  5. C. decipiens: found throughout Texas except the Trans-Pecos; described as a nuisance pest in structures, where it nests in voids.
  6. C. discolor: found throughout Texas except in the Trans-Pecos; described as nesting in dead and living trees.
  7. C. nearcticus: found in central, midwest, mideast and northeast Texas; described as nesting in dead twigs and branches, under the bark of dead and living trees, in hollow plant stems, inside insect galls, and in the roofing of wood structures.
  8. C. sayi: found throughout Texas except the southern tip of the state; described mostly as a nuisance pest.
  9. C. planatus: found in southern Texas along the Gulf coast, and in southern Florida where it is described as a nuisance pest.
  10. C. acutirostris: found only in mountain canyons; large colonies have been found in structures in Arizona, but not in Texas.
  11. C. castaneus: found in central, northeast, mideast, and south, along the Texas Gulf coast; described as usually nesting outside in rotten stumps or logs, but sometimes entering structures after dark to search for food.
  12. C. semitestaceus: found in the Texas panhandle, the Trans-Pecos, and eastward through the center of the state; described as nesting under rocks, and only rarely in structures, and
  13. C. vicinus: found in the Texas Panhandle, the Trans-Pecos, and the western half of the state; described as nesting in a variety of habitats including the heartwood of living trees and in structures; in Washington state, this species is considered an important structural pest, second only to C. modoc, with a reputation for excavating solid wood, though preferring wood that has already suffered damage, presumably from such things as fungal rot.

As you read through the above list, note that nowhere is it said that the ones found in Texas excavate sound wood here. Some, like C. pennsylvanicus, excavate sound wood in other parts of the United States, but appear not to do so here. Why this is so is not entirely clear, but — within the academic entomology community in Texas — there is wide agreement on this point: carpenter ants in Texas do, indeed, excavate wood, but only after it has already been softened by excessive moisture and/or wood rot, after the real damage has already been done. In other words, when you see the frass (accumulations of chewed wood that the ants push out of their nests, littering the surfaces below) from a carpenter ant nest, don’t be concerned about any damage the ants may have done; the wood they excavated to produce that frass had already been damaged by wood rot, and nothing the ants did would have made things worse than that.

These ants are beneficial for several reasons. For one thing they prey on other insects, but for this author they are most beneficial for their ability to serve as an early warning system. When you see lots of carpenter ants, you will also likely see a high moisture condition that needs to be fixed. Those who recommend focusing on, and killing the carpenter ants with pesticides, are “killing the messenger.” Most of the time, killing the ants is the only thing that is done because, explaining the fact that they aren’t the real problem exposes contradictions better left unsaid. So, the real problem — water infiltration into a wall, roof, or ceiling of a structure — is ignored and doesn’t get addressed like it should. Guess what that leads to. It isn’t pretty.

So, when you find carpenter ants, don’t focus on the messenger (you could thank them, actually). Instead, focus on finding out why the high moisture condition exists and get that taken care of. Once you do that, the carpenter ants will most likely nest elsewhere. Like the acrobat ant, they don’t sting, their bites are harmless, and — as best we know — they don’t carry diseases that affect humans or our companion pets.

Fire Ants. Texas hosts five species of fire ants, four of which are considered native species, and one that was imported from South America in the middle of the last century. That species, the red imported fire ant (RIFA) with the taxonomical name Solenopsis invicta, is believed to have first arrived at the seaport of Mobile, Alabama, sometime between 1933 and 1945, aboard a cargo ship. From there it has slowly spread throughout the southern United States and northern Mexico.


Fig. 6. Fire Ant Mound. Notice how this mound looks so innocent. Yet, if it is disturbed, hundreds to thousands of fire ants will swarm out and attack the hand or foot that disturbed it. For this reason, fire ants should never be allowed to grow their colonies large enough to construct visible mounds. Once they get that large, they pose a serious danger to anything that disturbs them. In smaller numbers, paradoxically, they prove beneficial for their predation on other insects, and on ticks and mites.


The red imported fire ant is considered by most authorities to be the absolute worst invasive species ever known to man. That’s probably true. People susceptible to anaphalaxis (serious allergic reactions to insect bites and stings, certain foods, and some medications) have died after being stung by these ants. Some of our birds, including quail, nest on the ground, and have suffered dramatic population declines where RIFA populations abound, because the ants invade their nests and kill the chicks soon after they emerge from the egg.

Still, despite their terrible reputation, and the fact that they wreak genuine havoc wherever they gain a foothold, populations of S. invicta still function as beneficial organisms when they are properly handled within localized areas such as a residential yards or the grounds of a multifamily residence, a business, an institution, or a medical facility. Proper control methods, in this context, serve to make the best of what is otherwise a truly bad situation.

When I discuss the pros and cons of proper fire ant control methods, the first question I ask is “When was the last time you saw a tick around here?” Answer, for most Texans: “It’s been a long time.” If you never or only rarely see ticks where you live, hike, or garden, you can thank the red imported fire ant for that. It is hard to say how many tick borne diseases have been prevented in Texas just because our ticks, which were once quite numerous all over the state, are now — at least in many places — being kept in check by these ants.


IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT TEXAS TICKS: While in many parts of Texas ticks are not as common as in earlier times, they are still present throughout the state and in some locales are as numerous as ever. Most carry and transmit life-altering and even life-threatening diseases. For that reason, it is important to be aware of the risks they pose, and that precautions be taken to avoid being bitten. Five species of ticks are found here, (1) the American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), more common in the eastern half of the state, transmits tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever; (2) the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), common in central and east Texas, transmits Borrelia burgdorferi and B. mayonii (Lyme disease), Anaplasma phagocytophilum (anaplasmosis), B. miyamotoi disease (a relapsing fever), Ehrlichia muris eauclairensis (ehrlichiosis), Babesia microti (babesiosis), and Powassan virus (Powassan virus disease); (3) the Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus), found throughout the state, transmits Rocky Mountain spotted fever; (4) the Gulf Coast Tick (Amblyomma maculatum), found along the Gulf coast and far east Texas, transmits Rickettsia parkeri rickettsiosis, a form of spotted fever; and (5) the Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum), found in the central and eastern half of Texas, transmits Ehrlichia chaffeensis and Ehrlichia ewingii (human ehrlichiosis), Heartland virus, tularemia, and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI).


Other pests have also been held in check by this ant as well. Does that settle the score? Nobody knows for sure, but it really doesn’t matter. Authorities agree that we cannot stop the expansion of red imported fire ants throughout Texas, though we’ve tried hard and failed. So, we might as well celebrate the small blessings they bring alongside their more obvious curses. To do that, we should do all we can to promote conditions that improve on their benefits while reducing or eliminating the negatives.

Over the past decade or so, though unable to stop them, we’ve been able to slow their geographic expansion somewhat by the introduction of natural RIFA enemies, including several species of parasitic phorid flies in the genus Pseudacteon. As these parasitoids went to work, the overall population of this fire ant — within the territories it occupied — declined, and its expansion into new areas slowed. Interestingly enough, though, their ability to keep other pests in check appeared to remain relatively high.

The same effect has been true for targeted pesticidal fire ant baiting programs using baits that target RIFA and a few other ant species, but that have little effect on most other organisms. Most of the time, these baiting programs are conducted within limited plots of land (like individual residential yards), surrounded by other plots that are left untreated. In such areas, not only can the red imported fire ants in those treated plots be kept under the radar to the point they are almost never noticed, but so are many if not most of the other usual pests. By comparison, pesticidal treatments for fire ants that employ the use of long-lasting, broadband pesticides that kill practically everything in the treated area do not seem to work like that at all; in those areas the fire ants may be gone for awhile, but they are soon replaced by a long list of other pests, migrating in from surrounding areas, that the fire ants once kept in check. Even worse, the effects of those broadband pesticides are only temporary. Soon the fire ants return, too, often with a vengeance brought on by the fact that all their natural predators have been wiped out by the broadband pesticides.

An unusually effective treatment for fire ants involves the use of a granular bait that fire ants quickly pick up and store in their pantries. The over-the-counter version of this bait, AMDRO (click on the link for more information on that product; and no, we don’t have stock in the company, and receive no compensation for discussing it’s qualities here) has been used for decades. It contains the active ingredient hydramethylnon, which can control other insects as well. Although — for that reason — it could be considered a broadband pesticide, the ability of fire ants to remove it quickly from where it is sprinkled, and quickly store it in their underground pantries makes that bait, at least functionally, one that narrowly targets those ants and the others with which fire ants more or less peacefully coexist.


PLEASE NOTE: A number of granular fire ant baits are presently available over-the-counter and on-line that are labeled for the control of fire ants. No doubt others will become available before long as well. I mention the use of AMDRO here, not to endorse it in favor of any of the others, but for illustration purposes only.


You may not know this, but adult ants cannot, in general, consume large granules of solid food. Some time ago, a story went viral that claimed spreading corn grits in your yard will kill the ants that eat them, because — the story asserted — the grits will swell in their stomachs and cause them to explode. Perhaps that idea was spurred on by the fact that most granular fire ant baits are made with corn grits laced with toxicants. Some who know the carrier of these baits to be corn grits think, from that story, that it isn’t the toxicants but the grits, themselves, that get the job done. That would be nice if true, but it was nothing more than a fanciful myth. Adult ants and most larval life forms as well, simply cannot swallow large granules of solid food. They can eat tiny particles, but — for red imported fire ants, at least — those particles cannot be larger than 2 microns (0.00078 inch) in diameter. Grits that tiny would not swell up much inside the ant’s intestinal tract.

Still, almost all ants forage for solid food anyhow. They take great pains to haul that solid food — that they clearly cannot eat — back to their nests to store in underground pantries near the nurseries where eggs are laid by the colony’s queen, and larvae are nursed after the eggs hatch. The grub-like larvae that hatch out of the eggs are tended to by adult ants, who initially feed them some of the same liquid nutrients (though less of the liquid sugars, which the adult workers favor for themselves, and more of the liquid oils that they share more freely with the larvae) that the adults eat, because the larvae cannot — at first — eat large granules of solid food either. The lifecycle, from egg to adult, takes from 22 and 38 days, and consists of three phases. Phase 1, the egg, lasts 7-10 days; phase 2, the larvae, 6-12 days; and phase 3, the pupae, 9-16 days. As the larvae develop, they pass through the first two molts still unable to swallow large granules. After the third molt, however, the gullets of the fourth-instar larvae are large enough to accept large granules. It is the larvae at this stage of development which get to eat the solid food that was stored in the pantry earlier.

The nursery’s fourth-instar larvae swallow and digest the solids they are fed. Digestion converts the granules into a liquid that can be regurgitated. Actually, regurgitation is a natural reaction for these larvae, as their stomachs cannot void into the alimentary canal. The regurgitated liquid is used to feed the colony’s adults and the first three instars of nursery larvae. This enables the fourth-instar larvae in the colony’s nursery to serve as the solid-food stomach for everybody else. They aren’t the colony’s only source of food, because adults obtain liquid nutrients elsewhere, such as honeydew from aphids, nectar from flowers, liquids that flow from the insects they prey upon, and food-based liquids they find inside residential homes. Adult ants collect these liquids as they forage, and store them in their crops (a flexible balloon-like structure in their abdomens, connected to the mouth by a tube). When their crops are full, they return to the nest where — on demand — they regurgitate the stored liquid contents to share with other members of the colony. Once a new fire ant colony develops to the stage where its nursery has lots of fourth instar larvae, a considerable amount of the food the colony consumes comes from the nursery, as the extra proteins from the now-digested solids are vital to their long-term survival.

A targeted treatment program for red imported fire ants uses AMDRO, or a similar granular bait, sprinkled strategically, usually within limited plots of land. The best way to perform treatments at residential homes, we’ve found, is to sprinkle the granules lightly along the perimeter of each structure (be it a home, a business, a shed, detached garage, etc.), the perimeter of each walkway (both sides of sidewalks, driveways, walkways, etc.), around the bases of each tree, and along the perimeter of the backyard fence. We don’t sprinkle so much that, when the ground on which it is sprinkled is examined, visible amounts of the product can be found. Also, we don’t sprinkle directly on fire ant mounds, and we try never to apply more near the mounds than anywhere else, as the ants are more respectful of food they have to work for than the food that is found nearest the mound.

If we are seeing fire ant mounds in your yard, we should probably repeat the initial treatments weekly for at least four to six weeks in a row. That will act to fully charge all the food pantries for all those ants, which is important at the beginning of a program in an area that has not been treated this way in the past.


WHOA! That can turn out to be a pretty hefty schedule, right? Well, relax… We’re not interested in coming to your home monthly, much less weekly, just to treat for fire ants. We do have a large number of commercial clients, and a very few residential clients, that have a special need for that kind of TLC, and we happily do it for them because otherwise it would not be done at all. For everyone else, there’s a better way that keeps your budget in check and let’s us concentrate on more difficult procedures not so amenable to do-it-yourself programs. We’ll discuss how you can make this method of fire ant control work for you in a practical, inexpensive way, later in this presentation, so don’t stop reading. For the moment, though, it is important that you understand why this method works so well, and why alternatives that may seem to work better usually only make matters worse…


If done right (once monthly during the months of March through October), the treatment program described above effectively wipes out all the fire ants in the colony within 3-6 weeks. Soon, however, neighboring colonies from untreated areas take over the territories the now-dead colonies used to control. They arrive in small numbers, intending to found new colonies that will eventually grow large enough to construct new fire ant mounds. They also take control of the old colony’s stashes of unused bait.

Take stock for a moment on how this plays out, once the original colonies have been neutralized this way…

A lag occurs between the time the ants from the in-migrating colony arrives, founds a nursery, then develops that nursery to the point where its  fourth-instar larvae are able to consume solids from the pantry. During that lag, all goes on like normal. The in-migrating colony’s numbers don’t expand, as their nursery is not producing fresh adults (the only way the colony can grow larger). The in-migrating ants are, as would be expected, fully sustained by the liquid nourishment brought in by their members that forage, and by the liquids and edible, sub-microscopic solids they obtain in the process of controlling the pests in their new territories. They also work hard to pick up, bring back, and restock the pantries inherited from the old colony with fresh bait that gets sprinkled into their foraging territory each month.

Yet the colony doesn’t increase in population, and thus its members are incapable of inflicting harm on humans or their pets. The small number of fire ants involved goes essentially unnoticed by those humans, who may even think there are no fire ants present at all. Then, for the ants, everything changes. Once the nursery develops to the point it has fourth-instar larvae that can eat solid food, the bait stash from the old pantry stock comes into play. At that point they, the queen, and all the workers in the colony are doomed. Soon, the entire colony is neutralized, and once that happens, the cycle starts over, each time with the fire ant pantries fully re-stocked with fresh bait.

So, as long as the targeted baiting program continues, the human inhabitants get treated to all the benefits of a low-population of fire ants. Simultaneously, they avoid the nasty consequences of a fire ant population that is out of control.

Targeted fire ant bait not only works for fire ants, but other species of pest ants as well. That includes, for example, Argentine ants and tawny crazy ants. Neither of those species is dangerous to humans, but both are extremely annoying due to the large number of workers in their colonies. Studies have shown that both they and — presumably — a number of other pest ant species are attracted to fire ant colonies.

Why?

As you now know, the fire ant nurseries serve as stomachs for their colonies. Those nurseries may be relatively easy for ants of other species to pilfer. When other species of ants steal regurgitated liquids from the nursery’s fourth instar larvae, they get dosed with the same toxicants that wipe out the fire ants. That brings them under control, too. Most the organisms that pilfer fire ant colony nurseries are considered pests, too, so by having transitory, low-population fire ant colonies that never grow into large ones at your site that these pests can pilfer, you end up targeting them as well.

What about alternatives that don’t require monthly treatments?

The most common kind of fire ant control, today, involves spreading broadband pesticides, in granular or liquid form, all over your yard. That kills every insect and spider in sight. Some of the products involved promise to kill fire ants for a full year with only one treatment, and if done right, they work as promised, for a full year. Yet, though they kill everything that nests in the soil during that period, they don’t kill pests and other organisms that only travel over the surface of the soil. Remember, over 99% of our organisms are beneficial. Killing them all is a recipe for lots of bad pests, which is not good. So, what can you do that gets the fire ants under control but leaves the friendly stuff alone? I mentioned earlier that you need to perform targeted baiting on a monthly basis, but paying a pest control company to come out every month to do that would be expensive.


Answer: you can, and probably should, do it yourself. It takes only five to ten minutes a month, and you can make sure you do it on a dry day with no rain in the forecast for the next 24 hours, something a pest control company on a rigid schedule would have a tough time doing. AMDRO, for example, is sold over the counter at many of your local stores. Buy some and follow the label.


Read the label on the container of ant bait carefully, and be sure to follow its instructions to the letter, as the label is the law and must be adhered to. Donning a long-sleeved shirt, long pants that reach to your shoes, socks, and boots or street shoes (no Birkenstocks, please), is a good idea, too, even if the label doesn’t say you have to. So, dressed as just mentioned, take the container of bait, walk outside, and sprinkle the bait lightly along the perimeter of your home, your walkways, driveway, patio, and backyard fence. Don’t forget to sprinkle lightly around the bases of your trees, too. But don’t sprinkle the bait directly on any fire ant mounds, because fire ants prefer to have to work for their food and bait that lands directly on their mounds won’t be respected. When finished, store the bait in a cool, dry, dark place until your next treatment.

If you have visible fire ant mounds in your yard now, perform this treatment once a week for at least four weeks in a row. Then treat once a month, March through October. Don’t miss a month or you will have fire ant mounds again…

Oh, and one more thing… that container of bait you purchased may or may not come in a bottle with a lid that is perforated in a way that facilitates sprinkling it as I just described. It may come in a bag, for example, that doesn’t facilitate sprinkling it at all. The most common way to distribute granulated bait is to use one of the commercially available broadcasters (like the whirlybird, for example) for that purpose. We don’t recommend that, because broadcasting the bait may waste a lot of product, and definitely lengthens the time from discovery to packing the granules into the ants’ pantries. Studies have shown that ants, including fire ants, tend to forage most along linear pathways delineated by hard boundaries, like the edges of driveways, walkways, and foundations. Much of the granules broadcasted away from such boundaries will not be found quickly by the ants, and speed in getting those granules found and taken to the ant pantries is important.

So, gosh… What to do?

Fashion your own pesticide granule dispenser, with a wide, perforated liid, that allows you to sprinkle 16-32 ounces (by volume, not weight) each time you treat. If you don’t sprinkle all the contents of your dispenser on that treatment, pour the residue back into the bag and store it, with your sprinkle bottle, in the 5 gallon pail with the bag(s) of granules. If you cannot figure out how to make a sprinkle bottle, contact me and I will give you some pointers.

Millipedes. These are arthropods in the taxonomical class Diplopoda. Although comprised of 16 recognized genera and over 12,500 species, the ones we see in our yards and homes in Texas appear as small, brown-to-beige colored, 1-1.5 inch long hardened worms with lots of short legs that slowly propel them from place to place. They are often represented by two species in particular, Oriulus venustus, and Scytonotus granulatus, though a number of other species are common here, too.


Fig. 7. Millipede. These organisms, which look like segmented worms, are very common in our yards, and sometimes enter our homes. They are harmless to humans and our pets, and are beneficial for their ability to convert decaying plant matter into soil nutrients.


In general, the millipedes we see are detritivores that feed on decaying plant matter. In this regard, they are an important part of nature’s web of organisms that serve to convert dead plant-life into soil nutrients. Though some exotic species, not found in Texas, are genuine pests, the species we find here are harmless. They do not have waxy coatings on their bodies to prevent moisture loss, and thus must inhabit moist environs to survive. If conditions are right — high moisture, heavy thatch and leaf litter, shaded soil and mulch, etc. — on the perimeters of our homes and businesses, their populations may grow to such large numbers that, during periods of heavy rain, extraordinary hot, cold, or dry spells, they are forced to migrate out of their normal habitats into the homes and businesses around which they usually nest unseen. When that happens, the human occupants of the affected structures seek emergency measures, including the use of pesticides, to exterminate them.

Applying pesticides under such circumstances may make the occupants of those buildings feel better, but is otherwise of little or no impact on the actual cause. If pesticides are applied where the millipedes nest, they and all the other beneficial organisms in that area are destroyed, but only temporarily. The result is to open the door for genuine pests to become more numerous and invade the structure, leading to more problems than existed earlier.

When millipedes invade, think “vacuum cleaner,” not pesticides. If you treat them with pesticides, you still have to vacuum them up, so omit the pesticides and go straight to to the final step. You and everyone else nearby will be better off for it.

Rolly-pollies and Lawn Shrimp. Did you know you almost certainly have crustaceans around your home and business? Yes, crustaceans, as in cousins to such things as crabs, lobsters, crayfish and shrimp. Well, you do. Two kinds of them are very common and are usually called rolly-pollies, pillbugs and/or sowbugs. Both the appellations “rolly-pollies” and “pillbugs” refer to those that can roll into a sphere when threatened; sowbugs, however, are not able to defend themselves that way. All have seven pairs of legs; sowbugs also have two prominent appendages projecting backward from the tail, which are absent in the pillbug. One of the most common pillbugs in Texas is Armadillium vulgare, and two of the most common Texas sowbugs are Porcellio laevis and P. scaber. All are distributed worldwide, and all prefer environs similar to those favored by our common millipedes.


Fig. 8. European Sowbug, in Harford County, Maryland. This photo was taken on 9 November 2019 by Dave Webb. See his photos on flickr.com. Sowbugs are annoying when weather conditions force them inside our homes, but while outside they pay us a lot of favors.


Like our millipedes, pillbugs and sowbugs are detritivores that convert dead or dying plant life into soil nutrients. Their intestinal tracts are fortified with microbes that make digestion of plant cellulose and lignin possible. Though they have a reputation for feeding on live plants, they much prefer dead plants to live ones because the former provide much better nutrition for them than the latter. Furthermore, they are attracted to fungal and microbial contaminants of living plants, scouring those from the plant life for their nutritive value. In this way they help living plants maintain their health in the midst of biological agents that could otherwise infect and damage them.

One of the most important capabilities of these organisms is their ability to concentrate, in their bodies, heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and cadmium. As they ingest these dangerous ions in their diet, they store them in crystalline deposits in the mid-gut rather than expelling them as feces. The result is that they tend to clean up the soil where they forage.

Closely related to the pillbugs and sowbugs are terrestrial amphipods that resemble shrimp in body shape, but do not live in water. Instead, they are found in moist leaf and grass litter and under dense ground cover with high levels of humidity and ground moisture. The most common species is Arcitalitrus sylvaticus. Though rare in Texas, they sometimes show up in homes the same way sowbugs and pillbugs do, and that often leads homeowners to call out the exterminator.

Whether sowbugs, pillbugs, or lawn shrimp, the use of pesticides is almost never a good idea. As with millipedes, think “vacuum cleaner” instead…

Spiders. As I mentioned early in this article, Texas has over 900 species of spiders, but only two of those are considered to be dangerous. Actually, that’s probably not perfectly true, if you count the other recluse spiders that are found in rare locations, always outside, and if you take into account the brown widow spiders that we have in a few places, too. No doubt we have one or two others that — if we knew all we could know about them — we’d call them dangerous as well. Still, the very fact that we don’t know of more means that, even if they are dangerous if handled, they probably never get handled. That, in practical terms, means the same as harmless, if you get my drift.

Regarding the black widow, we Texans almost never suffer bites from them these days. Back in the olden days, we did, but that was when the grand old outhouse was our usual place to go to the bathroom. Black widows tended to nest around the “hole” upon which one would sit and cogitate. This was not a problem for the ladies, but for the men of the family, the presence of human genitalia hanging below the hole would sometimes cause the nesting black widows to bite. Ow!

Well, these days, with outhouses mostly a thing of the past, the black widows we now see are either those that nest in the open (a common sight in east Texas, under the eaves of homes and businesses, for example) or in dark, cryptic voids like the interiors of irrigation control boxes, circuit breaker cabinets, or the like. We know, or should know, that wise individuals never reach into such places without first inspecting them for vermin, using a bright flashlight. If that is done, the chance of getting bit by a black widow is practically nil. If you happen to see a black widow on its cob web, though, a light spray with just about anything will usually kill it. Soapy water, for example, especially if a little vinegar is added to the water, usually does the trick. Just be careful not to use aqueous sprays in circuit breaker boxes or anything electrical, as the shock you may get could be a lot worse than the black widow’s bite. For black widows in such places, call in a professional. It’s money well spent.

As for brown recluse spiders, you either have them or you don’t. If you have one, you will likely have a pot-full of them, because they infest in large numbers. Fortunately, those places are relatively rare. Read through the articles I’ve written on this spider by clicking on the link at the beginning of this paragraph to learn more about them. If you have them, give me a call so we can discuss some of the ways to bring their infestation to a halt.

Termites. We tend to think of termites as being a pest problem that affects structures, not landscaping. However, these insects are a ubiquitous feature of our yards because their natural habitat is the soil. Mother nature loves them because they are so efficient at converting dying and dead plant matter — especially woody plant matter — back into the soil nutrients that the plants soaked up to grow big and strong. We hate them, foolishly, because of the damage they cause to our structures, but when that happens it is usually our fault, so that hatred is generally misplaced. We should not hate the termites for doing what they do best, but should instead focus on fixing they conditions that invited them to munch where they are unwelcome.

That said, the termites in our yards can cause serious problems for us when things get out of hand. So, what should we do when that happens? I’ve published a detailed post on Texas termites that you may want to read, so click on the link to go there. With respect to termites in our yards, gardens, and landscaping, though, let’s summarize things into a few pithy points to consider.

First, as I point out in the article, if you stick a wooden stake in the ground, anywhere in Texas, you will usually find termites munching on it within a few short weeks. That’s how well termites criss-cross the soil here, looking for new sources of cellulosic food. Yet, most of the time — even for those species notorious for attacking wooden structures like homes and businesses — they stick to the soil, and leave buildings alone. Now, if you are in the habit of gardening with wooden stakes to mark your plantings, or as braces and racks for your above-ground veggies, those wooden stakes won’t last very long. Use plastic or metal ones instead…

Sometimes termites will get into live trees or shrubs, and when that happens, they can weaken and even destroy those plants. Under such circumstances, the plant involved likely became weakened by disease or malnutrition before the termites attacked. Heavily diseased trees and other woody plants may need to be taken out if, in addition to disease, they are infested with termites, but don’t blame the termites. Blame the disease(s) that predisposed them to termite infestation.

For more information read the article on that subject.

Wasps, Bees, and “Yellowjackets.” Many homeowners are deathly afraid of the bees, wasps, and “yellowjackets” they see flying around in their yards and gardens. Their fear emanates, of course, from the nasty habit of these insects to inflict stings on humans that molest them. Whether one is allergic to the stings or not, the very threat of being accosted in this manner is frightening. For those with allergies that might produce potentially fatal anaphylactic reactions, the dangers are magnified, both physiologically and psychologically.

Depending on the source, various studies show that anywhere from 0.05-2% of humans worldwide experience anaphylaxis at some time in their lifetimes. About 5-7.5% of Americans are hypersensitive to insect stings, though few of those will actually get stung, and of those, not all will suffer anaphylactic reactions. On the other hand, some 32% of beekeepers, because they are exposed to stings more often, are allergic, yet most continue to work in that field anyway.

Annually, about 60 Americans die from anaphylactic shock after being stung by a venomous insect. That number accounts for about 20% of all deaths in the U.S. from anaphylaxis. The remaining 80% (bringing the annual total of anaphylactic reaction deaths to around 300) die from reactions to allergens. In children, the most common allergens involved are food-related, such as peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, and milk. For adults, besides the aforementioned foods, anaphylaxis is triggered by medications including antibiotics, aspirin, over-the-counter pain relievers, the IV contrast used in some imaging tests, latex, and — surprisingly — even exercise. That last one, physical exertion, demands more of an explanation. Aerobic exercise such as jogging, brisk walking, or even light exertion can, under certain circumstances, bring on a bout of anaphylaxis. Usually, though, it is a combination of exercise, hot weather, and consumption of foods laced with allergens that makes this happen. In sum, anaphylactic reactions can be caused by a lot of other things besides insect stings.

Putting this into perspective, over 51,000 Americans died from kidney disease in 2018. That same year, more than 167,000 Americans died from accidents and unintentional injuries, and over 655,000 died from heart disease. The risk of dying from anaphylaxis, by comparison, is extremely low. I mention this because, if you are deathly afraid of bees, wasps and yellowjackets, you can probably relax. Chances are, even if you are allergic to their stings, you won’t die as a result of getting one.

Still, why take the chance, right?

I hear that all the time. “Get rid of them all, please, so my yard, flowers, trees, shrubs, the eaves of my home, and all those other places where these insects hang out, are totally free of them.Well, good luck with that. It just isn’t going to happen, simply because these insects are so ubiquitous. Not only do they nest in your yard, they nest in your neighbors’ yards, too, and they forage in your yard from nests that can be far, far away. If you have flowers, leafy trees, shrubs, and other botanicals in your yard, then, you might as well accept that you are guaranteed to also have bees, wasps, and yellowjackets. They go together like peas in a pod…

There are two exceptions to that generic statement, namely honeybee hives and true yellowjackets.

I’ve been using the expression “yellowjacket” in the vernacular, because that’s what most people say to refer to common, ordinary wasps, in the Polistinae subfamily of the Vespidae family of wasps, comprised of a single genus (Polistes) that build paper umbrella-shaped nests but are predominantly yellowish in color. True yellowjackets are different. What entomologists call true yellowjackets are the less common species of wasps in the the Vespinae subfamily of highly aggressive wasps, which comprise two genera (Vespula and Dolichovespula). The wasps in these two genera form nests that are  fully enclosed, and are capable of building colonies of 4-5,000 workers. They usually form arboreal (tree) nests, but sometimes nest in subterranean burrows, and even — though less often — make nests in the walls of homes and other structures. If they nest on or near a residential home or business, they should be exterminated very carefully, and the job should be handled by a professional in the pest management field. Ordinary umbrella wasps, however, can usually be dealt with by homeowners themselves, without the need for pesticides, provided they tackle the job promptly, before they grow very large, and provided the homeowner is not known to be susceptible to anaphylaxis from insect stings.

Bees, like true yellowjackets, forage in your yard whether they nest there or not, as long as your yard has nectar-and-pollen-producing botanicals. Most honeybees forage for nectar and pollen far and wide, up to nearly 4 miles from their hive. As long as they are not nesting on your site, their presence is nothing to worry about unless you happen to molest them, intentionally or not. If you see a bee, and it starts buzzing around your body, don’t swat it or try to shoo it away. It will leave on its own before long. Sometimes one may actually land on you, particularly if your perfume or body wash contains ingredients that they find attractive. If that happens, just stop what you are doing, remain still, and let it be. It, too, will soon leave on its own. As with true yellowjackets, though, if you discover that you are hosting a wild beehive on your property, that beehive should be removed by a professional.

Now, back to the wasps…

“Umbrella wasp” is another name for the common ordinary wasps we’re discussing here. Regardless of their dominant coloration — be it black, red, or yellow — they build paper-like nests shaped roughly in the shape of an umbrella, with the cells where eggs are laid and young are reared facing downward. The upper surface of the umbrella-shaped nest is sealed off and has a stalk at its center, where the nest is attached to a hosting surface, usually a limb or the underside of a home’s eave.

As long as you take steps to keep umbrella wasps from building a nest that grows to have at least 4 or more adult wasps on it, you have little to fear from these insects. While they are solitary, or in groups up to 3, they won’t attack unless you come into direct contact with them intentionally. Even when their nest is molested, so long as you maintain at least 5 feet or so between yourself and the nest, they will refrain from attack as long as there are no more than three on the nest. This is true because their aggression is mediated by a volatile attack pheromone each wasp emits from its venom gland when threatened. That pheromone evaporates and scents the air, and it is that scent that sounds an alarm for the wasps close by. The concentration of that pheromone has to reach a certain level in the air before an attack is triggered. Three or less wasps cannot, in general, emit enough attack pheromone to make that happen.

One more thing… An umbrella wasp nest that is more than 20 feet away almost never poses a threat to those passing by unless they or someone else does something to antagonize them. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare. The point here is that, if wasps are building nests in the upper eaves of your two-story home, it is usually not necessary to go to great lengths to remove them unless it becomes necessary to access the roof, there, in a way that brings you closer than 20 feet from those nests.

The goal of a rational homeowner’s wasp control program, then, is to remove all the wasp nests on one’s site, on a regular basis, when those nests are being built within that 20-foot interval where they could pose a threat. But, before doing that, read and heed the warning posted below:


WARNING: Out of an abundance of caution, no one should ever attempt the removal of an active wasp nest using any means if that individual is susceptible to anaphylaxis from insect stings, or if that person is physically or visually impaired. Don’t chance a sting, even if you have an EPI-PEN handy. It just isn’t worth the risk.


Wasp nests in Texas are built from scratch by fertile females in the springtime. The nest produces infertile females initially, as they must mate to be fertile, and no males are produced until later in the year. When males emerge, they mate with a few of the infertile females, and those now-fertile wasps are able to hibernate through the winter months, so they can found new nests in the springtime.

Newly founded springtime wasp nests begin with a few maternity cells, and continue to grow throughout the spring, summer and early fall, but are abandoned after the males emerge in the fall. When a fertile female wasp begins building a nest from scratch, she — either alone or in concert with one or two other adult female wasps who, though also fertile, accede queenship to the founder and subordinate themselves to the state of a worker — craft(s) a set of maternity cells, then the dominant fertile female lays an egg along with some food in each cell. Each cell takes hours or days to craft, so each egg hatches into larva, in succession, hours or days apart from the next cell in the sequence. Once laid, it takes about 3 days for the egg to hatch. Each hatched larva is fed by the queen and her assistant workers, and regurgitates liquid nutrients that feed the adults. Each larva continues to develop in this way over a period of 12-18 days, before sealing its cell to pupate. Pupation is the stage where the larva is transformed into an adult wasp, and takes another 12 days or so, during which the pupa does not eat. At the end of the pupation period, the adult emerges and begins to perform the duties of adding to the nest’s cells, collecting food to feed the larvae, and accepting as a reward for doing so, the regurgitated liquids produced by the colony’s developing larvae.

Thus the founder wasp may be the solitary occupant of the nest until the first egg hatches, or she and one or two others may occupy that nest at the start. What this means is that, at the beginning the nest can probably be removed with a poke stick, alone, without worrying that the wasps will attack. Still, the risk is there that you may not have counted all the wasps, and the wasps you see may be unusual in that they are willing to attack whether there’s enough alarm pheromone in the air or not. Don’t take that risk.


CAUTION: Even if you notice only two or three wasps are on the nest, spray the nest first with a commercial, over-the-counter wasp spray, to kill the wasps before you use the poke stick to knock down the nest. Don’t risk getting stung…


So, with your wasp spray in one hand, and poke stick in the other, take a short walk around your home once every few weeks or so (but at least once a month), to keep the wasps on your property under control. When you see a nest, count the wasps on it. If you count 3 or less, spray the nest from where you are, and then use your poke stick to knock it down. If you see more than 3, but fewer than 10 or 12 on the nest, back away so you are 15-20 feet from the nest, then spray it with the wasp spray. Wait awhile, to make sure all the wasps are dead before using your poke stick to knock the nest down. If the nest contains more than 10 or 12 wasps, you may want to have it removed by a professional. You can avoid having to do that by going around your home and knocking down the developing nests before they get very large. Once every 3-4 weeks, without fail, should work.


References:

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  • Turner, Paul J. 2017. Fatal Anaphylaxis: Mortality Rate and Risk Factors. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract
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  • Wilson, Edward O. 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
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  • Wilson, Edward O. 1971. The Insect Societies. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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