Fire ants are native to South America and rarely seen in Europe. Their population was under control in Europe before 2019, but a few nests were observed for the first time a few months back. Their presence raised concerns among scientists and locals because red fire ants are responsible for painful bites and stings.
On 11 September 2023, a report was published in the journal Current Biology about the appearance of invasive red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) in Europe for the first time. Mattia Menchetti and a few other researchers found 88 nests of red imported fire ants in Sicily, Italy that were spread over an area of 47,000 square meters.
In 2019, the locals of Syracuse reported the presence of fire ants in their region after getting stung by these dangerous insects. Their genetic analysis provided information about the source of origin, and the researchers learned that these ants came from the US and China.
Moreover, the environmental conditions of Europe were favorable for their survival and reproduction, so they moved to these regions and continued to increase their population for survival.
When did red fire ants invade Europe for the first time?
A report was published in the journal Current Biology on 11 September 2023 that was about the invasion of red fire ants in Europe for the first time.
It was unexpected and distressing news for the locals and researchers because they knew of possible structural damages and painful bites associated with this species.
Mattia Menchetti is doing PhD at The Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC-UPF) in Barcelona and has great knowledge about Hymenopterans.
He saw photos of the infested area and reached there with his research colleagues to collect the sample for analysis. They found around 88 mature nests in regions of the Sicily of Syracuse.
These nests were spread over 47,000 square meters, almost equal to a football stadium. Mattia mentioned the quick-spreading behavior of red fire ants and their invasive nature.
Accordingly, their nests became a reason for discomfort and worry for locals and researchers who began to find their origin and developed strategies to control them.
How did red imported fire ants reach Europe?
Red fire ants are commonly present in South America and are native to this region, but they move and live in other areas when they find a favorable environment there.
Mattia and a few other researchers studied the behavior of red fire ants and their source of origin by collecting a few ants from nests reported in different areas of Italy.
It was essential to find their entry routes to control the world’s worst species of ants from invading these places and stop them from reaching other areas.
Moreover, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands provide a suitable environment for these deadly ants; that’s why they reach these places and invade by making more and more nests.
These researchers tried to understand their possible entry routes and said that these invasive ants came to Europe through contaminated plants when imported from their native country.
In addition, another entry route mentioned in the report was cargo ships’ holds, and it was estimated that these insects spread to this region from cargo ports.
Furthermore, the researchers monitored their populations to keep them under control and avoid their movement to different regions within Europe.
These spread through nuptial flight and lay eggs in far areas, providing a suitable warm and humid environment for egg laying and development.
So, one potential reason for these ants’ presence on this continent is that almost 7% of the region of this continent is suitable for their survival.
Negative impact of invasive red fire ants in Europe
Red imported fire ants can damage the properties as these insects were responsible for structural damage and caught the attention of the local people.
Also, they are aggressive to intruders and bite humans when they are responsible for causing disturbance to their mounds in open areas.
They affect human health by stinging their skin and injecting harmful chemicals into their bodies. Their bites and stings sometimes lead to allergic reactions, redness, and pain in the affected area.
Crops are also prone to damage by this invasive species as they feed on plants and eat pollinating insects. They are poisonous and inflict painful bites or stings that are painful for some animals.
Moreover, they disturb the population of native insects and other smaller animals because they react aggressively when other organisms try to interfere with their activities.
Strategies to control red imported fire ants in Europe
It is essential to control the invasive species of fire ants in Europe to prevent structural damage and protect humans from their painful bites.
An ideal solution to control their population is not to allow them to establish colonies in addition to adequately checking the imported plants and other products that could have ants on them.
Moreover, the US Department of Agriculture has mentioned using the virus (Solenopsis invicta virus-5) as a biocontrol agent to control invasive fire ants.
In the same way, parasitic fungi and wasps are also effective controlling agents that can be used to avoid the invasion of S. invicta in Europe.
Furthermore, the researchers expected to get help from the local Sicilians to track the spreading behavior and asked for coordinated action to deal with the problem.