We'd only been in the Lone Star State for a few weeks, and weren't even properly moved in yet.  There were still packing boxes half full of stuff everywhere, and hardly a place to sit down.  Perfect time for a party!  So we got a big galvanized wash tub and filled it with ice and Lone Star beers, and fired up the barbecue to toast up some hot link sausages we'd gotten from the butcher at the Piggly Wiggly market.  Somebody brought their guitar, and someone else brought a big bowl of guacamole and chips.  Everyone was smiling and having a great time until the talk turned to fire ants.

The red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, is the critter in question, believed to have arrived in the United States sometime in the 1930 as stowaways in the soil carried aboard cargo ships as ballast.  These tiny illegal immigrants probably first came ashore in Alabama and Florida, but apparently they found it to their liking and wired home to the relatives, "c'mon out."  By the time the first Fire Ant census was performed by the USDA in 1953, they had spread to over 100 counties in 10 states.  They are currently common along the entire southeastern border of the United States and that most definitely includes Texas.

Our new Texas Aggie friends down at Dudley's, the classic student hangout across the street from Texas A & M University1 had warned us about fire ants, but we sort of laughed it off.  I mean how much trouble can a two millimeter ant cause anyway?  None of us paid much attention, and the Texans just sort of pulled their hats down a little lower over their foreheads and smiled quietly.

As it turns out, they were right and we were wrong, way wrong!   In 1957, the U.S. Congress allocated $2.4 million dollars for the purpose of eradicating fire ants.  That was real money back then, but it didn't do the job.  Since that time, they've tried poisoning the individual mounds, broadcasting fire ant bait from airplanes and a whole catalog of ingenious biological controls, but those didn't do the job either.  Recently, fire ants have shown up as far west as California, and as far north as Kansas and Maryland.  Coming soon to a lawn near you!2

Back at the party, after the first few rounds of Lone Star longnecks had been ceremonially gulped, and the smell of burning hotlinks wafted through the halls, the discussion turned to the wonders and delights we had all recently encountered in our new homeland.  Dennis and Roy had chased an armadillo for an hour, but when they finally had the poor little monster cornered, Katie disdainfully informed them that armadillos carried leprosy, so they chickened out and let him go.  

My report was the discovery of a man made lake (called a "Tank" in Texan) on the outskirts of town where we could all go windsurfing.  The discovery of Bryan Utilities Lake Park (BULP) was welcome news because it had become brutally clear to our crew of displaced Californians that there was no ocean here, hence no surf, hence no surfing.  It looked like it was boiling down to windsurfing or alcoholism.  As history revealed, it is actually possible to blend the two of these nicely.

Anne's contribution was the report of a huge fire ant mound, right out in the back yard!  The availability of this marvel close at hand won the day and after stocking up on more longnecks, we all drifted outside to have a look.  The dome-shaped mound of a fire ant nest stands about a quarter of a meter high, and is about half that much around.  It's made from the dirt the ants excavate when they build their home beneath.  Over time, the mound is soaked by rain and dried again, so the surface of the mound develops a thin crust that protects it from the odd accidental encounter.  You won't usually see many ants coming or going from the mound itself because the clever little fellows have built tunnels stretching away from the mound to handle the everyday traffic.

The mound we saw in the back yard was typical in all respects, made from the brownish-orange clay soil characteristic of the Brazos Valley.  There weren't any ants in sight as we edged closer for a good look.  To their credit, the girls were unanimous in their instinct about where this was headed, and after verbally abusing us for the testosterone poisoned morons that we arguably were they sensibly returned to the house, food, and music.  

This was even before Bradley managed to get himself bitten.  He skillfully found one of the fire ant off ramps and stuck his finger in front of it to obtain a specimen.  He called us all over to display his trophy and while we were gawking, the ungrateful wretch bit him.  We laughed.  He laughed too, but then he went inside with his "serious," face on.   We laughed again when he came back out with an ice cube sitting on the angry red blotch that had appeared on his palm.  I think we were still laughing when Gus took a long pull on his beer and called Brad a pussy.  

This wasn't exactly a "fightin words" challenge or anything.  We all worked on research ships and pussy is sort of a favored technical term out on the high seas.  Cindy, our first female marine technician had called me a pussy on the last cruise because I hesitated at plunging my upper body into a 50 gallon vat of used compressor oil to rescue our new torque wrench when it fell in.  She shot me a disgusted look and plunged in herself, becoming an instant legend in the galley that evening.  So having Gus call you a pussy wasn't dangerous exactly, but it was a serious charge, mostly just because it was Gus.

Gus was our leader, our boss, our role model, our hero.  He was a huge guy, built like a linebacker who has let himself go a bit.  He had small, fierce, pale blue eyes deeply set in a heavy viking brow that was emphasized by his flaming red moustache and an out of control beard.  Picture Gimli the Tolkien Dwarf, only big. To have Gus focus his attention on you was to know the meaning of the verb "to squirm".  Gus was rumored to be an ex green beret, and to have "played some football," but no one had the cojones to actually come out and ask him for the details.  When he wasn't on the ship, he had a side business, demolition.  He told me one time that it wasn't because he needed the money, but just "cause I like blowin shit up!"  Gus was larger than life.

So when he called Brad out on his alleged pussy-ness, we knew there'd be more to follow.  Brad threw away his ice cube, tried to regain his dignity and said, "Right Gus, you try it then..."  Part of the mystique about Gus was that he wasn't instinctively macho.  He had that natural conservatism that people who have actually been in life and death situations often seem to develop.  When Brad hurled his challenge, I saw Gus' eyes dart over to the fire ant mound, then back to the angry welt on Brad's hand.  He hesitated a moment, and I thought he was going to laugh it off, but instead, he walked slowly over to the mound, took another long pull of his Lone Star and plunged his thick fist right down inside the thing until only his dive watch was showing.

Fire ants are known for their synchronized stinging behavior.  When they perceive a threat, they summon the troops and swarm the enemy, initially, without biting.  Then, once some critical mass has been achieved, a pheromone signals the attack and everybody lets loose at once.  Fire ants can bite multiple times and generally don't stop until they are physically scraped off or killed.  Kamikazes of the Solenopsisfamily! Fire ant attacks have been responsible for the death of livestock and even some humans.  Their stings initially cause an intense burning sensation (hence the name) followed by the development of white pustules that take weeks to completely heal and are easily infected.

To his credit, Gus didn't pull his hand right back out, an empty gesture that wouldn't have fooled this crowd for a minute.  He held it in there longer even than any of us thought necessary, then longer than we could even believe. Then, longer than he should have.  It was apparently just long enough for the fire ant generals to command the troops, and the captains to deploy them and the sergeants to get their platoons locked and loaded.  And then, as fire ants are wont to do, they all stung at once.

A mature fire ant colony can house over a quarter of a million ants.  Fire ant queens live up to seven years and can produce over 600 eggs per day for their entire life.  It's not clear how many fire ants all bit Gus at once, but I think that it's safe to say that the orgy of ant squishing that erupted probably didn't affect the hive's productivity as much as it did Gus's.  We could all tell it the moment they attacked because he pulled his paw out of the mound and scrutinized it with an astonished, puzzled and deeply sad look.  Then he dropped his half finished beer in the dirt and started madly scraping the rusty sludge of squirming ants off.  Unfortunately, this only succeeded in transferring large quantities of ants onto his other arm, clearly not a winning strategy. 

Finally, in a gesture of grace and humanity that I will always remember, Brad strode over and turned on the garden hose and directed the pressure nozzle onto Gus's swollen arms.  This appeared to work and, crestfallen at seeing our hero laid low, the rest of us drifted back to the food and music.

About the only good thing to be said about fire ants is that it is enormously entertaining to kill them.  Despite many years of study, entomologists have yet to devise a method of controlling fire ants on a large scale.  In the end, it's every man for himself with respect to fire ants, and if you don't want them around, you have to kill them off, mound by mound.  The good news is that there are very effective fire ant baits expressly for this purpose.  Better news yet is that the poisons are delightfully malevolent in their action.  The fire ant bait3 I came to prefer consisted of cheery yellow nuggets that looked like Grape Nuts cereal only golden.  This stuff was designed somehow, to trick the worker ants into thinking it was a special treat that should be delivered immediately to mommy, the Queen.  You find an offending fire ant mound, sprinkle a circle of golden goodies around it and then stomp a few times to let the crew know you're there.  The little suckers swarm out the doors, and dash around madly looking for something to attack. Then they discover the bait and queue up into nice, obedient little lines, each carrying a chunk of certain death home to the boss.  In a couple of days, no more mound.  It's not immediate and violent, but still somehow deeply satisfying.

Gus and Brad came in to the party a few minutes later looking a little sheepish.  The blood had drained from Gus's face and, looking back on it, I'm pretty sure that he was experiencing a mild case of shock.  We settled him next to the beer tub so he could soak his hands in the ice water and he switched from beer to Jack Daniels for the rest of the evening. As far as I know, nobody ever mentioned the event to him again. 

That's the way it goes with heroes, and fire ants.

1 TAMU Fire Ant website:  http://fireant.tamu.edu/
They're in Australia too:
My favorite fire ant poison:  http://www.superkill.ws/