Every summer, we receive calls about ants getting into vegetable gardens and crawling all over people’s plants. In particular, okra and southern peas seem to be a common problem for nuisance ants. Ants are attracted to the sugary nectar produced in flowers and may also be attracted to other sap-feeding insects such as aphids, if they are any present. Ants will form a symbiotic relationship with aphids and protect them from predatory insects in exchange for their sugary honeydew.
People often blame ants for causing misshaped okra and other plant problems. However, ants do not cause any major injuries to okra. Any twisted or distorted okra pods are usually the result of stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs feeding on the pods. However, fire ants are a bigger concern when trying to harvest the okra and may sting you. Fire ants might also cause some of the blooms to abort if they excessively feed on the developing flower buds. This behavior does not appear to be associated with other types of ants. Spraying the okra for ants is not effective and often leads to disappointment.
The only way to control fire ants is to locate the mound and treat the mound with an insecticide or bait product. Products containing carbaryl (Sevin brand) or bifenthrin (several brands) can be applied directly to the mound and are labeled for general garden use. Avoid spraying vegetables with these insecticides, especially when flowering. Any insecticides applied directly to flower blooms can potentially harm bees and other pollinators—which are necessary if you want to produce any vegetables.
There are two ant bait products that are safe to use around vegetables, including Esteem and Spinosad. Other bait products such as Amdro can be used on lawns and around the perimeter of a garden, but isn’t labeled for use inside the garden. A perimeter treatment is usually adequate since the ants will find the bait while foraging. Sprinkle bait products around the mounds rather than directly on top of the mounds.
If you find that other insects such as aphids or whiteflies are active on your okra plants or other vegetables, then treating for these sap-feeding insects will discourage ants from being attracted to the honeydew produced by these insects. Most sap-feeding insects are best controlled with an insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. The advantage of using these products is that there are no harvest restrictions on vegetables and they are lower toxicity to bees and pollinators if applied later in the evening.
Be sure to use an insecticidal soap labeled as safe for vegetables, available at most garden centers. Home remedies using dish or hand soap might actually burn plant leaves and could do more damage than good. Note that carbaryl (Sevin) does not control these particular sap-feeding insects. Products containing malathion could be used to target aphids, but has a three day harvest restriction for certain vegetables (be sure to check the label).
There are other insecticides labeled for these vegetable pests on the market, but many of these have longer harvest restrictions and couldn’t be used close to harvest. Be sure to read and follow all labeled safety precautions when using any pesticides. For more information, check out our free home garden Extension publications online at https://t.uga.edu/602.
Paul Pugliese is the Extension Coordinator and Agricultural & Natural Resources Agent for Bartow County Cooperative Extension, a partnership of The University of Georgia, The U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Bartow County. For more information and free farm, lawn, or garden publications, call (770) 387-5142 or visit our local website at ugaextension.org/bartow.