Invasive fire ants continue spread through Virginia (2024)

NORFOLK, Va. — Invasive species cost society more than $423 billion a year and that price tag's expected to grow, according to a Reuters report just released.

Reuters researchers spent four years looking at the global impact of 3,500 invasive species in dozens of countries over and found that the invaders create big problems as they out compete native species, damage infrastructure, destroy crops, and threaten human health.

One invasive species seen spreading in Hampton Roads is the tiny but mighty fire ant.

"As a little kid I stepped in them quite a few times," said Tristan Hazlett, visiting Norfolk from Florida.

Fire ants can spoil the day for someone who gets bit.

"You kind of get these welts. They itch for a while," added Hazlett.

"It's immediate burning," said our News 3 reporter Ellen Ice.

Ice said she's allergic to fire ants and has video from when she was bit in 2016 reporting in Florida.

"I completely swells up, it scars. I have scars all over my feet from accidentally stepping in fire ant mounds," said Ice.

The painful reaction is something she never wants to experience again.

"As a news reporter, as someone out in the field all the time, I am worried to wear sandals again, which is silly, I wouldn't have thought of that in Virginia," said Ice.

The reactions are not just painful. Fire ants can kill pets and even humans. We might see them more often. Associate professor of biology at Old Dominion University Deborah Waller told News 3 they're spreading in Virginia.

"We're in a quarantine, which is very bad," said Waller. "That means that any nursery, anyone who is moving anything out of the area in terms of sod or plants, has to have it treated for fire ants first. It's very expensive for nurseries. They're just considered a danger here."

She said fire ants hitched a ride into the state.

"They came in with sod. We think they showed up at the Hampton Roads Golf Course over in Hampton. And they were discovered in 1989 and they had just sodded the area. They think they imported this from places fire ants were and they became established," said Waller.

In quarantine, Waller said the ants aren't spreading by sod but they are great at hitching rides on other things. Populations of fire ants have now been reported across the commonwealth.

Fire ants moving in has led to problems.

"They're a problem for many, many reasons. In terms of people, they have a terrible sting. Typically they all sting at once . . . and they can kill people," said Waller. "They're terrible for live stock and pets. They're terrible for native ants because they out compete and beat them. They're just very good at driving away anything else, except their own species. They're killing songbirds. They'll go into nests and eat baby birds. They'll go into nests and eat baby rabbits. They just destroy the habitat."

Many researchers suspect the fire ant spread will get worse as our environment warms.

"We assume it is related to climate change. Although they turned out to be a lot more adaptable than we thought. We always thought, 'oh well they can't survive here we have cold winters, it snows here,' but they moved here and they did fine. Then the warmer it gets, the fewer cold winters we have, the further they are going to spread," said Waller.

Years ago, Waller said, people tried to eradicate the ants but ended up killing many of the native ant species in the area.

"And then the fire ants all came back in but the other ants didn't come back in because the fire ants were there," said Waller. "But ants are so beneficial, except the invasive fire ants, they're so important for the environment and they have mutualisms with all types of other organisms."

Researchers at ODU are testing how to repel certain ants.

You can often spot fire ants by finding their telltale loose dirt mound on the ground.

Researchers say if you spot fire ants in your yard it's a good idea to call a professional to remove them.

Copyright 2023 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Invasive fire ants continue spread through Virginia (2024)

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