Out-of-state hay may harbor fire ants - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

Out-of-state hay may harbor fire ants

COLUMBIA, Mo. – If you buy hay from some parts of the southern U.S., you might get stung—not just once but many times—by red imported fire ants.

An Ozark County farmer recently learned that lesson the hard way while unloading hay he'd bought from a farmer in Florida. Unlike most ants, which usually flee when disturbed, these bugs went on the attack.

Drought has left many Missouri cattle producers short on feed and forage, prompting some to buy hay from out of state, including Florida and other southern states that are home to burgeoning populations of red imported fire ants.

An aggressive, stinging insect native to South America, the red imported fire ant (RIFA) was introduced to this country about a century ago. Free of the natural predators that kept them in check in South America, red imported fire ants have become a significant pest throughout much of the southern U.S., infesting several hundred million acres in more than a dozen states, according to the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

The ants can spread to new locations as stowaways in bales of hay, nursery stock and other products that contain or have been in contact with soil, said Richard Houseman, University of Missouri Extension state entomologist.

Under USDA regulations, hay in areas with established red imported fire ant populations must be inspected and certified before being shipped out of a quarantine zone.

Many hay buyers are unaware of the risk and may not realize that a seller may have skirted federal regulations.

This isn't the first time these ants have showed up in the Show-Me State. In 2009, red imported fire ants went undiscovered long enough to build mounds on a residential property in the town of Kennett in the Missouri Bootheel.

But as far as anyone knows, there are no established populations of red imported fire ants in Missouri. However, the recent high traffic in out-of-state hay dramatically increases the odds that some ants will escape notice long enough to establish themselves in parts of southern Missouri, where winters may be mild enough for colonies to survive year-round.

"Imported fire ants are a minor threat to agricultural crops, but are a bigger threat to the landscaping, nursery and sod industries," Houseman said. "They have a major impact in residential areas. They produce unsightly mounds, enter residential structures and deliver a potent sting when they are threatened or disturbed."

Imported fire ants disrupt natural ecosystems by displacing beneficial native insects and killing small mammals, reptiles and ground-nesting birds, he said.

When threatened, they can attack en masse, repeatedly jabbing victims with their venom-filled stingers. Their unusual alkaloid venom produces an acute burning sensation—hence the name "fire ant"—followed by the formation of itchy or painful white pustules that may take days to disappear.

APHIS is enforcing a federal quarantine that regulates the transport of certain items, including baled hay that has been in direct contact with the ground, soil, grass sod and soil-moving equipment. Regulated items cannot be moved outside the quarantine area unless certified by federal or state inspectors.

Imported fire ant colonies build distinctive foot-high mounds that can damage vehicles and farm equipment. Underground colonies can undermine sidewalks, roads and bridges, inflicting extensive and costly damage, he said.

The ants also have a mysterious attraction to electrical equipment, Houseman said. They will nest in circuit breakers, air conditioners and similar items. They have shorted out traffic signals and disrupted power in buildings. According to a study at Texas Tech University, fire ant damage to electrical and communications equipment in that state totals hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

If you suspect the presence of imported fire ants, Houseman recommends contacting your local MU Extension center and the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

You can find out if a particular location is under quarantine through the APHIS Web site by viewing a quarantine map or entering a ZIP code. The site contains extensive information about imported fire ants, including guidelines for producers and purchasers of baled hay.

Copyright 2012 KFVS & University of MO Extension Agency . All rights reserved.

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