Sunday, December 10, 2023

There’s a fire ant quarantine in the Historic Triangle. Here’s what it means

Fire ants, an invasive species, were introduced to the United States decades ago through a port in Mobile, Alabama. (WYDaily/File photo)
Fire ants, an invasive species, were introduced to the United States decades ago through a port in Mobile, Alabama. (WYDaily/File photo)

Did you know the Virginia Peninsula and South Hampton Roads have been under a fire ant quarantine?

Stretching from James City County all the way to Virginia Beach, the quarantine, which went into effect in 2009, has limited the import and export of hay, sod, nursery plants and more in the area for nearly a decade.

While state agriculture officials say those restrictions are unlikely to change in the immediate future, there are still ways to manage fire ants in your backyard — and avoid their painful bites.

“You don’t want fire ants around, and if you have them around, you want to stay away from them,” Elaine Lidholm, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS).

Fire ant mounds can look like papier mache or clay volcanoes made for school projects, Lidholm said.

The mounds are found in warm, sunny locations like landscape beds or lawns, as well as near trees and shrubs, and along sidewalk cracks and beside buildings. The ants can destroy crops, agricultural equipment and other wildlife.

When threatened, fire ants can become aggressive and respond rapidly to a believed attack. A fire ant sting typically turns into a small, blister-like sore that can become infected. Some people are also allergic to fire ant venom, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“If the crops are high, you can run into [the mounds] and damage your tractor,” Lidholm said. “Oh — they’re horrible.”

Kate Robbins, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for James City County, said she has not had any recent calls about local fire ant infestations, but she is always available to offer advice.

Why are fire ants here?

Black fire ants, an invasive species, were introduced to the United States around 1918 through a shipping port in Mobile, Alabama.

A second type of fire ant, the red imported fire ant, arrived through the same port in the late 1930s. Experts believe they may have been in soil used as ballast in cargo ships, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

The ants arrived in Virginia decades later, making the commonwealth one of more than 15 U.S. states and territories with imported fire ant populations.

The first fire ant infestation in Virginia was detected in 1989 in Hampton. VDACS believes the ants were introduced here through nursery plants and other plant products from infested areas.

Agriculture officials attempted to eradicate the ants from the state, and in 2009 put a quarantine into place in eastern Virginia.

What does the quarantine mean?

The quarantined area includes James City County, York County, Williamsburg, Poquoson, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Suffolk and Chesapeake.

The fire ant quarantine makes it illegal to ship any plant material, sod or mulch from areas known to be infested by fire ants to other non-infested areas.

There are exceptions, but only if they’re approved by the USDA.

The quarantine could be lifted eventually, Lidholm said, but only if there’s a “compelling reason” showing there have been no fire ants in the area for three years in a row.

At that point, the Virginia General Assembly to vote to change the law and lift the quarantine.

How can you get rid of fire ants?

Inside the quarantined area, VDACS does not treat fire ant mounds, meaning eradicating fire ants is in the hands of area residents.

Humans and pets should be kept away from the mounds, as the ants can sometimes attack without provocation, Lidholm said.

Exterminators use pesticides injected them directly into the mound to combat the ants. The chemical must come into direct contact with all of the insects inside, including the queen, to kill the mound. Some chemicals are not approved for animal pastures or cropland.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension says gasoline is not effective in eradicating fire ants.

“If gasoline was an effective fire ant control method, the United States would have been free of fire ants decades ago,” a cooperative extension publication reads.

Those looking to kill fire ant mounds within the quarantine area should contact their local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The James City County office can be reached at 757-564-2170.

If a fire ant mound is found outside of the quarantine area, residents should call the VDACS Office of Plant Industry Services. The Virginia Cooperative Extension does not recommend pest control operators try to treat fire ants outside of the quarantined area.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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