Red fire ants, a dreaded pest, have invaded Europe

13-09-2023 01:38 PM

Ammon News - Last week, international experts warned that invasive species are costing the world economy almost half-a-trillion dollars annually. Today, researchers confirmed that one of the most fearsome invaders—the red fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), a pest native to South America that packs a painful sting and infests houses and crops—has taken hold in Italy. It is the first European detection of colonies, which are known to drive out native ants and other wildlife and damage electrical equipment.

“The findings are an important call for immediate action,” says Cleo Bertelsmeier, an expert in invasive insects at the University of Lausanne. “Otherwise, it will be too late.” Bernard Kaufmann, an invasion ecologist at Claude Bernard University Lyon 1, adds: “Fire ants would be devastating if released in continental Europe and even more all around the Mediterranean Sea. The cost for human economies and well-being would be enormous.” Neither was involved in the new research.

A genetic analysis of the Italian ants suggests they likely came from either China or the United States. In the U.S., the species causes an estimated $6 billion in damage each year. The insects spread internationally via shipping, especially of plants and soil. Red fire ants have been detected in imported products in Spain, Finland, and the Netherlands, but not as wild colonies.

After seeing photos of creatures suspected to be red fire ants, researchers from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain, with colleagues from two Italian universities, found 88 nests in 4.7 hectares by a river in Sicily in late 2022, near the city of Syracuse, they report today in Current Biology. Although the find is concerning, it’s not necessarily surprising: The authors note that locals have reported red fire ant bites since 2019.

Based on an analysis of suitable habitats, the researchers estimate the ants could invade 7% of the European continent. The species prefers farms and cities, and could possibly infest half of Europe’s urban areas, the researchers found. Once it arrives in new territories, the ants can fly and spread locally aided by wind, so the researchers analyzed wind patterns as well. “Their suitability conclusions are probably warranted,” says entomologist James Wetterer of Florida Atlantic University, noting that the climate conditions suitable for S. invicta have been better studied than probably any other ant species.

Sicily is a major exporter of oranges, lemons, ornamental olive trees, and other Mediterranean plants, Kaufmann says, which indicates a risk of further spread to the whole of the Mediterranean area.

If the red fire ant spreads to Spain, it could be one of the worst affected countries, says ant expert Gema Trigos-Peral of the Polish Academy of Sciences. “There is a perfect climate,” she said in a statement to the Science Media Centre. Farther north where it’s colder, she thinks the species will be less successful, although climate change may give the invaders a boost. Using ecological modeling, the authors of the new study found that warming could expand the potential range of the species to 25% of the continent by 2050.

The scientists behind the new study are planning an eradication campaign in Sicily. With help from authorities, they say they will destroy the known nests, continue to search local areas for more nests, and monitor for several years to make sure no ants escape. They hope to recruit residents across Europe to keep an eye out for more fire ants.

Kaufmann says it looks possible to control this invasion. He notes that European regulations were updated last year to require eradication of four invasive ant species including S. invicta within 3 months of their discovery.

Only New Zealand has completely eradicated fire ants after an invasion. Australia has stopped six incursions at ports since 2001, including one with at least 370 colonies over 8300 hectares. It continues to battle an infestation that has spread to 600,000 hectares. These efforts have cost millions of dollars. “I expect similar efforts in Italy could be similarly successful,” Wetterer says. “But immediate action would be needed.”

Source: Science

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