Some farmers antsy over damaging, disruptive pests

From damaging farm equipment to destroying crops, fire ants can be a major hindrance for farmers.

After being introduced to the U.S. about a century ago, fire ants have established themselves in the Southeast. They have spread from Texas to Southeast Virginia, where they have wreaked havoc on plants and animals.

“Red imported fire ants, the ones we’re seeing become more problematic in Greensville, are causing multiple issues for farmers,” said Sara Rutherford, Virginia Cooperative Extension agriculture and natural resources agent in Greensville County. “RIFA are known to damage more than 50 cultivated plants by feeding on germinating seeds and developing flowers or fruit.”

In addition to hurting crops, fire ant mounds can cause problems in fields. The ants colonize on bare patches of soil, such as the base of a fence post, an overgrazed pasture or tilled crop fields. According to Rutherford, mounds can be as large as 24 inches in diameter and 18 inches in height.

“Although a minor problem, this can dislodge harvesting equipment, like combine heads for soybeans,” she explained.

The species is notoriously aggressive and invasive, responding quickly to disturbances of a nest or food source. They attack in swarms, overwhelming their victims in large numbers. Livestock, especially newborn animals, may not be able to escape attacks.

“Calves born in the field may be stung repeatedly or even blinded by RIFA stings before they are able to stand up,” Rutherford said. “Cows, horses and other livestock can easily be stung in the mouth while attempting to graze in pastures where fire ant mounds are present.”

Some areas in Southeast Virginia have reported higher-than-usual levels of RIFA in recent years, likely due to consistently mild winters that allow ant populations to expand. Increased awareness may play a role too, as more residents are able to identify and report RIFA sightings.

To control the spread of RIFA, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has quarantined areas with high levels of ants. Products and materials capable of transporting RIFA are prohibited from leaving quarantined areas unless certified as free of imported fire ants.

To learn more about quarantined areas and managing RIFA on farms, visit bit.ly/2LEbsQz or contact a local Extension office.

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