Biting, stinging fire ants nest throughout Hampton Roads. And they’re still spreading. (2024)

Ants can really ruin a picnic.

But put a blanket down on this species and it’s really going to be a problem.

Fire ants.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of their discovery in Virginia, and the chances of getting attacked by this invasive and highly aggressive ant are better than ever.

Fire ants have methodically established themselves in the southeast, from Texas along the gulf coast, around Florida and up the East Coast into the Carolinas since they were accidentally brought into the country a century ago. It is widely believed that they arrived in produce containers from their native lands in South America.

Since being discovered in Virginia in 1989, they have become a fixture in the southeastern part of the state.

They’re fully established in all seven cities of Hampton Roads, and you can expect them to continue to spread throughout the Old Dominion.

“We’re treating a lot more areas,” said Tina MacIntyre of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “We anticipate adding more counties to the map. Our problem started when they were established in northern North Carolina along the state line.

“It’s just really difficult to stop them.”

Fire ant migration is monitored by the Department of Agriculture, which has established areas of quarantine. Any crops or farm equipment leaving a quarantine area for one outside is supposed to be inspected.

Thirteen states and Puerto Rico have some portion of quarantine.

In North Carolina, 72 of the state’s 100 counties are located in the “regulated area,” including all of the northeastern portion of the state. Hampton Roads is quarantined, and MacIntyre said that Mecklenburg, Brunswick, Greensville, Isle of Wight and Southampton counties likely will make the list by year’s end.

Blame for the spread rests on our shoulders.

“It’s human movement and mostly agriculture,” said Dini Miller, a professor and fire ant expert at Virginia Tech. “Their ability to spread is amazing, as is their ability to adapt to disasters to their nests. They have no real natural enemies and will establish themselves in an area and take over.

“They’re not something that should be ignored.”

Fire ants can cause extensive damage to farm equipment and crops, and they are appropriately named: Their stings are said to burn like fire.

When the ants attack, they clamp onto their victim using mandible jaws before turning their tail end stinger to bring on the real damage. They inject a potent venom. The resulting wounds can blister and lead to infections or permanent scarring.

And they attack in a swarm, using their numbers to overwhelm the victim.

For many animals, the result is death. A nest of them can clean a small animal down to the bone with piranha-like efficiency.

Humans who are allergic to the venom are at risk of dying. A Virginia Beach landscaper died in 2006 after being mobbed when he disturbed one of their nests.

The reddish-brown red fire ant arrived in the United States in the late 1930s, years after the black imported fire ant was documented in 1918.

Their arrival has proved to be costly. More than $5 billion is spent annually on medical treatment, crop damage and control in infested areas, according to the USDA. Nearly $750 million of that price tag goes to agriculture, veterinary bills, and loss to livestock and crops.

More than 40 million people live in infested states, and the USDA estimates that anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of those people are stung annually.

“We had them 7 or 8 years ago around here,” said farmer Mike Cullipher, who works land in the southern-most part of Virginia Beach. “It wasn’t terrible bad, but it was getting bad. They weren’t causing us any significant problems, but we were worried about our strawberry, peach and apple fields where people go out and pick.”

Cullipher said two winters of extremely wet and cold weather a couple of years ago appears to have taken care of the problem in the Back Bay area.

“Knock on wood, but we haven’t seen any around here in a while,” he said.

Nests can contain hundreds of thousands of worker ants, along with males and queens that do all the breeding. A queen can live for as many as seven years and produce up to 1,600 eggs a day. Some colonies have multiple queens.

When their nests are flooded, the workers bind together with their legs to form what is called a raft. They’ll float on the surface until a suitable spot to start a new colony is found. Mating flights between a queen and male fire ant also will help establish new colonies.

Rafts were witnessed throughout the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas.

The USDA works diligently to eradicate colonies found in areas that aren’t currently quarantined, mostly using a bait broadcast into large areas. The workers take the bait back to the queen, who dies and no longer can produce eggs, shortening the life of a colony.

For residential use, pest control companies make products that also work well at killing the queens.

Leon Proffitt discovered the ants on his Currituck County, N.C., property while mowing. When he went over a mound, he said, the ants erupted out of it like lava flowing out of a volcano.

He found another, larger mound on the side of his yard and decided to leave it alone.

“I got stung a few times,” he said. “It hurts. I’m probably going to have to do something about that one.”

Lee Tolliver, 757-222-5844,

Biting, stinging fire ants nest throughout Hampton Roads. And they’re still spreading. (2024)


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