Ants on the march
Biologist surprised to discover European fire ants in Carbonear
Not long ago, biologist Barry Hicks would have argued with anyone who might suggest that European fire ants — an aggressive red ant that can give a nasty sting — could be found in the earth around Carbonear. Not anymore. Hicks, who teaches at the College of the North Atlantic in Carbonear, discovered this so-called invasive species in the ground — and in the air — last month, but he’s cautioning people not to get too alarmed.
“It’s not a big issue now. They won’t be back producing workers and making nests until next spring and early summer,” Hicks stated last week.
“ Yes, they can give you a sting. But so can a wasp,” he added.
He said anyone with specific allergies would be most at risk.
The fire ant has been making headlines in parts of North America and eastern Canada for some time, mainly because of its nasty disposition and willingness to leave its mark on anyone who dares get too close to a nest.
In some regions, citizens have complained that their quality of life has been impacted by the arrival of the ant. And experts say they are practically impossible to eradicate once established in a region.
During a discussion about the ants on a radio call-in show this past summer, Hicks contended they did not exist in this province. He quickly got an earful from a Corner Brook caller who challenged his view.
Hicks collected some samples from the west coast city, and confirmed they were European fire ants.
Then, on Sept. 16, Hicks discovered several nests on Church Street in Carbonear. He has since confirmed the known distribution in the town is from the east end of Crowdy Street to Harbour Rock Hill. And late last week, he observed numerous “nuptial flights” — an airborne swarm of flying ants — in the town. He said it was the the first record of flight activity of these ants in North America.
What is a nuptial f light? Here’s how Hicks explained it: “ The nuptial flight is when the new winged queens and the winged males fly off on a courtship flight. They have sex on the wing and the new queens return to the earth to look for a place to produce a nest. With this activity, one would think that the ant should be more widespread than the present limited distribution that I have observed. I’m not sure if the ants disperse on the wing or if they return to the same nest area. Many questions still remain and hopefully will be answered by next summer.”
Hicks is now on a mission to find out how widespread the ants are in this province, and plans to step up his research next summer.
“ We do not have a good understanding of their distribution and biology in Newfoundland. By the end of next summer we should have a better idea on the extent of their distribution,” he said.
Hicks said the fire ant, at four to five millimetres, is smaller than the common black carpenter ant.
According to Hicks, the nesting habitat is variable. In other areas, they were located in lawns and gardens, but not within dense spruce-fir coniferous forest.
In fact, he said, it is suggested that the coniferous forest, as well as roads and streams, may provide a natural barrier to their movement. The ants are not mound builders like other well known native ants, but instead construct their nests under stones and or tree roots. They also like to build nests under or within downed woody debris, or in leaf litter, he explained.
Scientists call it Myrmica rubra. But it’s commonly referred to as the European fire ant in North America.
It’s native to Europe and Asia, and was first introduced into North America in Massachusetts in 1900, Hicks explained.
Hicks said it has slowly increased its range in North America, but many of the newer range extensions have come in the last 15 years.
Before this year, it had been recorded in six eastern U.S. states — Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine — and the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Hicks said the most common theory is that the ant was introduced several centuries ago by ships coming from England. Ships would often use soil and rocks as ballast, and simply dump the ballast after arriving in North America in order to make room for fish and other valuables.
They spread through a process called “colony budding,” which occurs when a group of ants, along with the queen, moves form the original colony and set up a new one close by. They can also spread when people unknowingly move infested logs, plants, mulch or fill.
They are said to feed on a variety of invertebrate prey including worms and other small insects. In addition, they feed on secretions from aphids and may take nectar from flowers.
Hicks invites anyone who believes they might know of their presence to call him at 596-8596, or e-mail email@example.com. He is particularly interested in long-time residents who may have information regarding their potential presence over many years.
A European fire collected last week in Carbonear by biologist Barry Hicks is displayed for the camera.
European fire ants crawl over a toonie $2 coin placed near a nest in Carbonear last week.
Biologist Barry Hicks discovered several nests of European fire ants in Carbonear last month.