Changing temperatures around the world are bad news for everyone — everyone, that is, except for fire ants, who have taken this opportunity to expand into Europe for the first time, according to a new study.
What is happening?
According to the study published in Current Biology, researchers have found a mature population of fire ants on the island of Sicily in Italy. Though there have been at least three previous “interceptions” of fire ant colonies in Spain, Finland, and the Netherlands, this is the first time an extensive mature population has been found in Europe, indicating that the insects are here to stay.
The study identified 88 nests of fire ants across about 12 acres, with anecdotal evidence from locals indicating that the ants have been in Sicily since 2019 when ant stings began to be reported.
Why is this concerning?
According to the study’s lead author, Mattia Menchetti of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, fire ants are “one of the worst invasive alien species [and] the fifth costliest worldwide, impacting ecosystems, agriculture, and human health.”
Not all foreign species are invasive — a species can be classified as invasive when it is introduced by human action and negatively impacts the local environment, human health, or economy.
This applies to fire ants, as noted by Menchetti, who also notes in the study that “half of the urban areas in Europe are already suitable and that climate warming expected under current trends will favor the expansion of this invasive ant.”
What is being done about the fire ants?
“Coordinated efforts for early detection and action in the region are key for successfully managing this new threat,” Menchetti writes, along with collaborators.
However, even with action, invasive species like fire ants can be quite costly. According to the Washington Post, a recent United Nations–backed report found that society spends $423 billion fighting invasive species annually.
Fire ants are currently costing Australia millions of dollars, per the Post, as that nation fights the invasive species, which threatens wildlife, fauna, and pollinators. Italy and the rest of Europe may soon face the same fight.
However, there is some hope of winning that fight — New Zealand has reportedly successfully eradicated fire ants. Florida Atlantic University entomologist James Wetterer told Science, “I expect similar efforts in Italy could be similarly successful. But immediate action would be needed.”
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