Powerful chemicals that once controlled and contained the beasts also proved poisonous to everything else and have been banned.
While new pesticides and insecticides and even steam have been used to help get ride of them, fire ants continue to survive.
But Rite-Kem, a Tupelo-based chemical company, has been producing and selling its innocuously named “Fire Ant Granulars” for almost 10 years, and customers who buy the product swear by them.
Tim Allred, the road manager for Lee County, said it’s been a very affective in eliminating fire ants the past 10 years.
And that’s exactly what Rite-Kem President Mark Lovil hears from customers large and small. Farmers have also been good buyers.
“It’s been used by cities and counties for years,” he said. “And it works.”
Technically, it’s a BASF product, with the company providing the raw materials for Rite-Kem to mix and use. Rite-Kem is registered to make and sell the product.
It’s also non-hazardous to humans and animals, unlike other products on the market, Lovil said.
“We pack it as a sand. You sprinkle two or three capfuls and it kills the mound,” he said.
The cost of the product is $35 a case, which includes 12 one-pound containers of the ant-killer.
But the general public hasn’t heard a lot about it – yet.
“It’s been pretty popular, but it’s all been by word of mouth,” Lovil said. “But we decided we needed to get the word out a little more on just how affective this stuff is.”
Fire Ant Granulars essentially works this way: The granules are spread over a slightly disturbed mound of ants. The ants don’t eat it, however. Because of its properties, the granules stick to the ants’ bodies, which spread the granules to the rest of the colony, including the all-important queen.
The granules pull the moisture out of the ants’ bodies, essentially dehydrating them and killing them.
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Lovil is a chemist, having moved to Tupelo 20 years ago.
He worked for a company that sold products to other companies, and he later bought the chemicals side of the business and renamed it Rite-Kem. But NAFTA all but killed the business, sending fellow suppliers – and customers – to Mexico.
Lovil knew he had to do something to find new customers.
Uncle Sam came calling, and Rite-Kem and the federal government have become partners ever since. Along the way, the company has developed score of new products, with Lovil leading the way.
Among the biggest sellers for the government include flight deck wash for U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, laundry detergent for the Department of Defense, windshield wash for the U.S military and corrosion removing compound for the DoD and Brazil.
While the government is its biggest customer, Rite-Kem also makes products for residential and business use.
“We make more than 300 products,” he said.
For example, the company also makes the “cakes” placed in men’s urinals. In fact, it makes millions of them a year, one of only a handful of companies able to do so.
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But with government spending under scrutiny and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, those government contracts may not be sustainable.
After all, when NAFTA went into effect, Rite-Kem saw 80 percent of its business dry up. Lovil doesn’t want a repeat.
So he figures the Fire Ant Granulars will provide a boost especially with the prime growing season ahead.
The company also has developed Swepe-Tite, an all-natural bed bug killer that also is seeing plenty of interest.
“It’s all about diversification,” he said.