Red imported fire ant

Red imported fire ant

name = Red imported fire ant

regnum = Animalia
phylum = Arthropoda
classis = Insecta
ordo = Hymenoptera
familia = Formicidae
tribus = Solenopsidini
genus = "Solenopsis"
species = "S. invicta"
binomial = "Solenopsis invicta"
binomial_authority = Buren, 1972
The red imported fire ants ("Solenopsis invicta"), or simply RIFA, is one of over 280 members of the widespread genus "Solenopsis". Although the red imported fire ant is native to South America, it is best known in the United States, Australia, Taiwan, Philippines, and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.Fact|date=January 2008 In January 2005, several ant-hills belonging to fire ants were found in northern Hong Kong.Fact|date=January 2008 Later, after a thorough search for the ant was conducted there, several hundred ant-hills were found in different parts of Hong Kong.Fact|date=January 2008 There were also reports of ant hills in Macau, the former Portuguese enclave that borders the province of Guangdong.

Colonies were accidentally introduced into the United States in the 1930s through the seaport of Mobile, Alabama. [cite web |publisher=United States Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service |url= |title=Red imported fire ant, "Solenopsis invicta" Buren] Cargo ships from Brazil docking at Mobile unloaded goods infested with the ants; they have since spread from Alabama to the coastal plain and piedmont of almost all of the south-eastern states, as well as into California. The ants were accidentally introduced into Australia in 2001, in a similar way. [cite journal |quotes=no |author=McCubbin K, Weiner J |title=Fire ants in Australia: a new medical and ecological hazard |journal=Medical Journal of Australia |volume=176 |issue=11 |pages=518–9 |year=2002 |pmid=12064981]


"See also general ant morphology"

Red imported fire ants have both a pedicel and postpediole. In other words they belong to a group of ants that have two humps between the thorax and abdomen. The workers have ten antennal segments terminating in a two segmented club. It is often difficult to distinguish between the red imported fire ant "Solenopsis invicta" and the other species in the genus. A number of characters are used, but are not always consistent between the black imported fire ant ("Solenopsis richteri")or hybrids between the two species. Positive identifications can be made using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to distinguish differences in the cuticular hydrocarbons.


The RIFA's introduction to the US was in the late 1930s. Travelling in the soil used as ballast on cargo ships, they came in through the seaport of Mobile, Alabama. Since then, the RIFA population has increased its territorial range to include most of the Southern United States, and now parts of the East Coast and California. They build mounds, usually no larger than 46 cm (18 in) in diameter and 46 cm (18 in) in height, although in Alabama some mounds have been reported to be over 60 cm high (2 ft) and larger, especially in fields where cattle graze, they build on soil close to homes and other buildings, and sometimes forage indoors for food and moisture. They are a nuisance and can threaten sleeping or bedridden individuals, and pets. Occasionally they feed on vegetable plants in home gardens. The worst damage usually occurs during hot, dry weather when they invade flowerbeds while seeking warmth and moisture. If disturbed, fire ants bite and sting the intruder.

They are apparently attracted to electrical equipment and crawl into air conditioning units and the electrical wiring of stop lights, shorting them out. This is the leading cause of traffic light shorts in Texas, where the ants cause more than US$140 million in damage each year. Several ant species, including fire ants, have been shown to contain ferromagnetic nanoparticles that may contribute information about the geomagnetic field for orientation during foraging or migration. [cite journal | quotes=no |journal=Journal of Experimental Biology |year=1999 |volume=202 |issue=19 |pages=2687–2692 |title=Isolation of magnetic nano particles from "Pachycondyla marginata" ants |author=Acosta-Avalos, D, E. Wajnberg, P. S. Oliveira, I. I. Leal, M. Farina & D. M. Esquivel |url=] However, it has not been found that electric or magnetic fields attract the ants. [cite web | last=Elsberry | first=Richard | title=Fatal electrical attraction: Invasion of the insects from Hell | journal=Electrical Apparatus | year=1997 | month=September | url= ] Rather, when wandering ants cause electrical shorts, they attempt to sting the wire and produce powerful semiochemicals, including defensive and recruitment pheromones. [cite conference | author=R. K. Vander Meerl, T. J. Slovak & H. G Thorvilson | title=Semiochemicals Released by Electrically-Shocked Red Imported Fire Ants | booktitle=The Texas Imported Fire Ant Research & Management Plan - Project Highlights for 1998 and Community-Wide Imported Fire Ant Management Projects at Mt. Pleasant, San Antonio, Austin, Houston and Dallas | url=] The chemical signals draw additional ants to the short. The only effective protection is to bar ants from the equipment physically or with insecticides.

The FDA estimates that more than US$5 billion is spent annually on medical treatment, damage, and control in RIFA-infested areas. Further, the ants cause approximately US$750 million in damage to agricultural assets, including vet bills and livestock loss as well as crop loss. [cite journal | quotes=no |last=McDonald | first=Maggie | title=Reds Under Your Feet (interview with Robert Vander Meer) | journal=New Scientist | volume=189 | issue=2538 | year=2006 | month=February | pages=50 ]

Fire ants are excellent natural predators and are biological controls for pests such as the sugarcane borer, the rice stink bug, the striped earwig, aphids, the boll weevil, the soybean looper, the cotton leafworm, the hornfly, and many other pests harmful to crops. However, they also kill beneficial pollinators such as ground-nesting bee species. Seeds, fruits, leaves, roots, bark, nectar, sap, fungi, and carrion are all fire-ant prey, and they are not shy from creating their own carrion either. They are proficient enough at overwhelming intruders that they can virtually clear an area of invertebrates, lizards, and ground-dwelling birds.

Since September 2004, Taiwan has been seriously affected by the red fire ant. A few people are reported to have succumbed to venom from the ant stings. A large campaign to kill the ants has been partially effective, but it has not been able to eliminate all of them.

In China in January 2005, a controversy arose when it became known that Guangdong's provincial government had suppressed all information about the spread of fire ants in the province since the middle of 2004. Hong Kong newspapers, including "Appledaily", "Mingpao", "Hong Kong Economic Times", "Singtao" and "Takungpao" (the latter funded by the Chinese government), have also reported that the ants have been found in both Shenzhen and Wuchuan in Guangdong province.

According to a press briefing of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department of Hong Kong, the city authorities have also located several ant-hills of "Solenopsis invicta" in an artificial wetland in Hong Kong's north-western section.

There have also been reports of ant-hills in Metro Manila and the Province of Cavite in the Philippines since July 2005, however since early 2007 they have spread now as far as the Bicol Region.

An outbreak of RIFA in Queensland, Australia, was discovered on 22 February 2001. It is believed that the ants were present in shipping containers arriving at the Port of Brisbane from the United States. Anecdotal evidence suggests fire ants may have been present in Australia for six to eight years prior to formal identification. While the outbreak is restricted to a small (800 km²) region of south-east Queensland in and around Brisbane, the potential social, economic, and ecological damage prompted the Australian government to respond rapidly. The initial emergency response was followed by the formation of the Fire Ant Control Centre in September 2001. Joint state and federal funding of A$175,000,000 was granted for a 6-year eradication program involving the employment of more than 600 staff and the broad-scale baiting of approximately 678.9 km² between 8 and 12 times, followed by two years of surveillance. Following the completion of the fourth year of the eradication program, the Fire Ant Control Centre estimated eradication rates of greater than 99% from previously infested properties. The latest (May 8) Federal budget confirmed that the Program will receive extended Commonwealth funding of approximately $A10m for at least another two years until June 2009 to treat the residual infestations found most recently and to fund validation of the overall treatment and surveillance Program. (see: [] ) As in previous years the States have agreed in principle to match the Federal funding. That decision is set to be ratified in June 2007.


Red imported fire ants have virtually no natural biological control agents in the United States, China, Philippines, or Australia. Many scientists and agencies are attempting to develop methods to stop the spread of the RIFA.

Biological methods

Traditionally, control of RIFA has been achieved through pesticide use, but current research is introducing natural enemies of the ant. The microsporidian protozoan "Thelohania solenopsae" and the fungus "Beauveria bassiana" are promising pathogens. "Solenopsis daguerrei", a parasitic ant, invades RIFA colonies to replace the queen in hopes of gaining control of the colony. For this reason, its use as a biological control agent is also being explored.

"Pseudacteon tricuspis" and "Pseudacteon curvatus" are parasitoid phorid flies from South America which parasitize the ants. The female flies each lay an egg at the junction of head and thorax of their victims, prompting a jerky dance manoeuvre by the ants. The larva then slowly consumes the contents of the head, decapitating the ant in the process, and using the exoskeleton as a pupal case.

Phorid flies have been introduced in many places in southeastern United States, and are slowly reproducing and spreading to cover the entire RIFA range. The amount of actual damage done to the ants by phorid flies is minimal, but the ants appear to be aware of the hovering flies, losing their social organization and ceasing foraging, thus causing much greater damage in the long run. In addition, phorid flies are very species-specific, and should in theory leave native ant species (the fire ants' prime competitor) unmolested.

A virus, SINV-1,cite journal | quotes = | author = Steven M. Vallesa, Charles A. Strong, Phat M. Dang, Wayne B. Hunter, Roberto M. Pereira, David H. Oi, Alexandra M. Shapiro, David F. Williams | date = 2004-07-09 | title = A picorna-like virus from the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta: initial discovery, genome sequence, and characterization | journal = Virology | volume = 328 | issue = | pages = 151–157 | url = | doi = 10.1016/j.virol.2004.07.016] has been found in about 20 percent of fire ant fields, where it appears to cause the slow death of infected colonies. It has proven to be self-sustaining and transmissible. Once introduced, it can eliminate a colony within three months. Researchers [cite web |url= |title= Integrated management of imported fire ants and emerging urban pest problems |publisher=United States Department of Agriculture |date=2007-05-17] believe the virus has potential as a viable biopesticide to control fire ants. [cite news |url= |title=Fire ants may have met their match |date=2007-05-07 |publisher=CNN]

In some cases, hastily adopted biological control agents can do more harm than good (such as the mosquitofish in Australia), and it remains to be seen how much success biological control of the red imported fire ant will have.

Physical methods

Researchers have also been experimenting with extreme temperature change to exterminate RIFA, such as injecting liquid nitrogen or pressurized steam into RIFA nests. Besides using hot steam, pouring boiling water into ant mounds has been found effective in exterminating their nests. [ [ Nature & Science » Biology Resources » Integrated Pest Management Manual ] ] Folk remedies have often sought a rapid "increase" in temperature by soaking the nest in gasoline or kerosene and lighting it on fire, but this is potentially dangerous and should not be attempted. Further, the burning of the nest is ineffective as the soil acts as a heat shield. The confusion stems from the observed fact that fuel vapour has a near instantaneous lethal effect on the ants and that in the time it takes to pour fuel, set the source away, and then light the mound, the vapours have spread throughout the tunnels and killed the bulk of the mound.

In Brisbane, Australia, colonies are being eradicated or effectively controlled by ground baiting with food laced with contraceptives (that render the colony's Queen infertile) and toxicants. Mass baiting was undertaken following detection of the ants around the port of Brisbane and in south western Brisbane in 2001. Widespread public reporting of suspect colonies (by sending in samples of ants for identification) allowed mapping of the ant's locations. This was combined with satellite imagery to determine the vegetated habitats most likely to be infiltrated by the ants and the baits were targeted in these areas. Known infested areas were declared high-risk (Restricted Areas), and any material being moved from these areas which could harbour ants (soil, mulch, potted plants, potting mix, hay bales, construction machinery etc) had to be inspected prior to disposal or movement and bulk waste sent to transfer stations for examination, treatment and disposal. The infestation was initially thought to cover 270 km² with a density of up to 600,000 colonies/km² on highly infested sites. As Program activity refined data on the infested area, overall size grew to around 80,000ha by 2006/7. At mid-2007 in the on-going nationally-funded eradication campaign, fewer than 100 active colonies were located in the entire South-East Queensland area during the 6 months between September 2006 and February 2007. The focus of delivering eradication has now switched largely to surveillance, while control and validation measures are expected to continue until 2009. The six year eradication campaign has cost A$175 million to date and has just secured funding in principle for a minimum of two more years. [ [ Catalyst: Fire Ant update - ABC TV Science ] ] []

ee also

* Amdro
* Acephate


External links

* [ The Alabama Fire Ant Management Program]
* [ National Pest Management Association's fact sheet on fire ant control, infestations and prevention]
* [ Imported Fire Ants: Biology, Control, and Management at eXtension]
* [ Clemson University Sandhill Research and Education Center RIFA Page]
* [ Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project]
* [ Official Queensland site]
* [ News about extermination efforts in China]
* [ History, Biology, Control of Imported Fire Ants]
* [ USDA Imported Fire And Household Insects research unit]
* [ Behavioral and Community Interaction of Phorid Flies and Fire Ants (UT Austin, Dr. Gilbert)]
* [ "The imported fire ant: how to control it."] hosted by the [ UNT Government Documents Department]
* [ The National Park Service's pest management manual for fire ants.]
* [ National Invasive Species Information Center's profile on the RIFA]
* [ red imported fire ant] on the UF / IFAS Featured Creatures Web site

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