Red fire ants are originally from Latin America, but have now spread to large parts of the world. “They travel carrying all kinds of cargo: potted plants, vegetables, fruits, but even between pallets,” says Jenzi Nordek, an ant expert at the EIS’s Insect Knowledge Centre.
About the author
Maartje Bakker is science editor at the journal De Volkskrant She won one for her work AAAS Kavli Award for Science Journalism, a major international competition for science journalists. She previously worked as a political editor and was a correspondent in Spain, Portugal and Morocco.
A Spanish-Italian research group published a report on the discovery of fire ants in the scientific journal on Monday Current biology. The insects have likely been around for a while: since 2019, locals in Sicily have reported noticeably painful ant stings. Genetic research shows that the ants descend from specimens from the United States or China.
“Humans fear these ants because they can form supercolonies, where millions of individuals come close together,” Nordyk says. “It also thrives in urban areas, in roadsides, parks or gardens.” The Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority reports that red fire ants in buildings can damage household appliances and cause nuisance by gnawing on textiles, plastics and electrical wires and by preying on food. This explains why this species ranks fifth on the list of animals that cost the most money to control, behind mosquitoes, rats and mice.
Subtropical ant species have also been seen several times in the Netherlands, but these have always been individual specimens, not entire colonies. Currently, ants do not breed here because they find it too cold.
Currently, only 7% of Europe is suitable as a colony for red fire ants, says lead researcher Mattia Menschetti. Current biology. The strip along the Mediterranean Sea is particularly vulnerable.
But due to global warming, their distribution area may expand rapidly. As early as 2050, a country like the Netherlands would be highly suitable as a business location, Menchetti and his colleagues write. Nordic agrees. “We have a lot of urban areas here,” he says. “And make no mistake: in Dutch cities it can get warmer due to the abundance of stones than in French nature reserves, for example.”
The red fire ant is already on the European Union’s radar. Since 2022, it has been part of the list of invasive alien species of concern. This means that from that moment on, these species can no longer be imported, transported, sold, bred, exchanged or released into the wild in the EU. It is also necessary to control these species.
Menchetti calls on Sicilians to help search for ants in order to combat them effectively. This is not impossible. In New Zealand, it has become possible to completely eradicate the red fire ant. Nordic also believes that “it is possible to stop alien species.” “We don’t have to wait as long as we used to do with Japanese knotweed or giant hogweed.”
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