Ants on the march

Bi­ol­o­gist sur­prised to dis­cover Euro­pean fire ants in Car­bon­ear

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BY TERRYROBERTS

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 barry.hicks@cna.ca. 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.

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