Carbonear — Not long ago, biologist Barry Hicks would have argued with anyone who suggested that European fire ants — an aggressive red ant that can give a nasty sting — could be found in Carbonear.
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 be 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 said 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 affected by the arrival of the ant. And experts say they are practically impossible to eradicate once they’re established in a region.
During a discussion about the ants on a radio call-in show this 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 they can be found from the east end of Crowdy Street to Harbour Rock Hill.
Late last week, he observed numerous “nuptial flights” — an airborne swarm of flying ants — in town. He said it was the the first record of flight activity for these ants in North America.
What is a nuptial flight? 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.
The fire ant, at four to five millimetres long, is smaller than the common black carpenter ant.
Hicks said the nesting habitat varies. They are not mound builders like native ants, but instead construct their nests under stones and or tree roots or within downed woody debris or leaf litter in lawns and gardens.
Scientists call it Myrmica rubra, but it’s 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.
It has slowly increased its range. 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 dump the ballast after they arrived in North America to make room for fish and other cargo.
They spread through a process called “colony budding,” which occurs when a group of ants, along with the queen, moves from 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.
Anyone who believes they have spotted European fire ants in the province can call Barry at 596-8956 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. He is particularly interested in residents who may have information regarding their potential presence over many years.