PICKENS COUNTY — When you live in the South, dealing with fire ants is just a way of life. But according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that wasn’t always the case.
According to the USDA, not one, but two species of Imported Fire Ants (IFA) were introduced into the United States from South America at the port of Mobile, Ala.: The black imported fire ant, Solenopsis richteri Forel, which arrived around 1918, and the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta Buren, in the 1930’s.
The report states that both species most likely came to the port in soil that was being used as ballast in cargo ships.
“Today, IFA infest more than 367,000,000 acres in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Puerto Rico,” reads the report — which is bad news to people living South of the Mason-Dixon line.
Most likely, fire ants are here to stay.
Besides the danger of producing a painful sting to humans and pets, IFA also have affected S.C. agriculture by damaging crops and impacting wildlife. Allergic reactions to the stings, although rare, have been known to produce instances of anaphylactic shock in humans.
The rapid spread of the species throughout the South prompted the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to institute a quarantine of affected areas to try and halt the ant’s progression northward.
The agency reported federal quarantine (7 CFR 301.81) would work with State cooperators to “regulate high risk commodities, such as nursery stock, hay and soil-moving equipment.”
In addition, the service also works with states, industry and other federal agencies to develop and evaluate the efficiency of regulatory treatments for high risk commodities, APHIS states.
Regulations and procedures within the scope of the quarantine are revised as necessary but currently, soil, plants with roots in soil (or if the roots even have soil attached), grass sod, baled hay and straw that has been stored in contact with soil and used soil-moving equipment (tractors, backhoes, etc.) may not be moved, transported or sold to areas outside the quarantine area.
Potting soil is considered exempt as long as it has been bagged and stored in commercial facilities.
However, despite APHIS’ best efforts, the ants continue to march on, which prompted the agency to step up their game.
“In an effort to manage IFA within the generally infested areas of the U.S., APHIS, along with (cooperation) in Agricultural Research Service, universities and states, implemented an Imported Fire Ant Phorid Fly rearing and release program,” said an agency spokesperson.
The flies, also native to South America kill fire ants by injecting them with their own larvae, using the ants bodies as hosts.
The first flies were released from 2002-2009 and have since become established in more than 65 percent of the IFA quarantined area — including South Carolina.
The agencies involved admit the flies are unlikely to wipe out the ants completely but insist they should help to at least keep the bug’s migration in check.
Until then, most experts agree that while pesticide applications may be necessary to destroy a mound, baits are the best way for controlling a population long term.
Reach Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.