- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Fire ants, the South American natives with the venomous, burning sting, may be surviving southeastern Virginia’s winters, which could mean bad news for the region’s plant farms, nurseries and residents.

“We thought they had a tendency to die off during cold weather, and when they first started showing up here, we assumed that,” said Mike Tilley, an inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “but apparently, that’s up to debate.”

Mr. Tilley said state workers who hunt and destroy the insects generally see an increase in activity as it starts to warm up in the spring and again just before the weather turns cooler. That increase strongly indicates, officials said, that the insects are here year-round rather than returning each spring.

Several fire-ant mounds were found on the grounds of a construction company in Portsmouth this spring, and last Monday a school maintenance worker brought in a vial of live ants found at a middle school, said Leanne DuBois, a program associate with Virginia Cooperative Extension in James City County.

The ants’ stings can be deadly to small animals, livestock and anyone with insect allergies. In Virginia, they have been found as far west as Danville and Roanoke.

Each new discovery puts the state one step closer to quarantine, when it gets costly for the nursery industry. Every plant, bush or tree that crosses Virginia’s state lines then would have to be treated for the federally regulated pests. The cost to the state’s agriculture industry would be in the millions of dollars.

The ants, which first came into the country in Mobile, Ala., in the 1930s, have spread gradually up the East Coast. By killing colonies as soon as they are reported, Virginia has avoided becoming infested, said Traci Gilland, a Portsmouth agricultural extension agent.

“The state is having a hard time keeping up with them,” Miss Gilland said. “Last year, they were checking at least two new sites a week. We’re finding that they’re adapting to the colder weather.”

Jerry Stimac, a professor of entomology at the University of Florida who has been researching the ants for years, said he hasn’t seen evidence that the insects are capable of wintering in Virginia. A hybrid species that may be somewhat more tolerant of cold was discovered a while ago, he said, but there is no hard evidence that any fire-ant species can survive Virginia’s chill.

The reddish-brown ants are close in size to ordinary household ants and have no natural enemies in the United States. Each mound-building colony has about 250,000 sterile workers, hundreds of fertile males and females, and a queen that lays about 200 eggs each day.

The ants cost the nursery and landscape business in the United States more than $1 billion a year.

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