The red fire ant (Soknopsis invicta) is a nasty, but not- too-serious pest in the southeastern United States. Its nests form mounds that interfere with the working of fields. Its stings may cause severe illness or death in sensitive people, but it is a considerably smaller menace in this regard than are bees and wasps. The ant is best described as a major nuisance. After limited and inadequate research on the biology of the fire ant, the USDA in 1957 came up with the astonishing idea of carrying out a massive aerial spray campaign, covering several states, against the ant. Along with other biologists, including those most familiar with the fire ant, one of us (P.R.E.) protested the planned program, pointing out, among other things, that the fire ant would be one of the last things seriously affected by a broadcast spray program. A quote from a letter he wrote concerning the problem to Ezra Taft Benson, then Secretary of Agriculture, follows:
To any trained biologist a scorched-earth policy involving the treatment of 20 million acres with a highly potent poison such as dieldrin should be considered as a last ditch stand, one resorted to only after all of the possible alternatives have been investigated. In addition such a dangerous program should not even be considered unless the pest involved is an extremely serious threat to life and property.
Is the Department of Agriculture aware that there are other consequences of such a program aside from the immediate death of vast numbers of animals? Are they aware that even poisoning the soil in a carefully planned strip system is bound to upset the ecological balance in the area? We are all too ignorant of the possible sequelae of such a program. Has it been pointed out that an adaptable and widespread organism such as the Fire Ant is one of the least likely of the insects in the treated area to be exterminated? It is also highly likely that, considering its large population size, the Fire Ant will have the reserve of genetic variability to permit the survival of resistant strains.
I would strongly recommend that the program be suspended: 1) until the biology of the ant can be thoroughly investigated with a view toward biological control, baiting, or some other control method superior to broadcast poisoning, and 2) until trained ecologists can do the field studies necessary to give a reasonable evaluation of the chances of success, and the concomitant damage to the human population, wildlife, and the biotic community in general of any contemplated control program.