One of the world’s most problematic invasive species has arrived in Europe, and not just because it arrived. Specimens of this animal have already been detected in imported products in Spain, Finland, and the Netherlands. The worrying thing is that they now seem to have become established. They are no longer a handful of individuals in a lost package; they are entire colonies that permeate our continent and reproduce without pause. They are among us, and the future is not very hopeful. Its scientific name is not Solenopsis invicta for nothing, because from its native South America, it traveled to Central America, Asia, and Oceania to settle where it reached land, and we only managed to eradicate it in New Zealand. Otherwise, he continues to live by his last name. “undefeated.”
It is not necessary to raise the alarm, but the truth is that the presence of this ant poses a danger. On the one hand, most species we remove from their habitat will cause problems by competing with local life, even if they fail to establish themselves. It competes with local ant species and may cause some of them to become extinct, affecting the rest of the interactions in which they were involved. The biosphere is a very complex and interconnected system, and for this reason alone, we should be concerned about these ants. However, there is a slightly more selfish and obvious reason to consider: their bite is so painful that it has earned them the nickname fire ants. In fact, they can sometimes cause allergic reactions and, in extreme cases, anaphylactic shock, which can lead to death. Not to mention the economic losses they bring, since in the US the agricultural sector was affected, causing losses of $6 billion. Is there a solution?
Researchers from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE), a joint center of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), have found 88 nests in Siracusa, Sicily. They are all spread over approximately 4.7 hectares. Some nests have thousands of workers. And as if that weren’t enough, neighbors are reporting bites compatible with this species that date back to 2019, meaning they have been detected for at least four years. These are not four lost ants but dozens of colonies, which may not be the first in Europe due to Sicily’s geographical location. They may have arrived in these Italian ports from other maritime cities on our continent, which means that there are nests in other places that we do not yet know about.
If there is a solution, it certainly doesn’t seem easy. We must remember that we are not the first continent to face them and that all but New Zealand have failed in their efforts. The good thing about this information is that New Zealand gives us some hope. While we are not an island in the middle of the Pacific, we can try to emulate their actions. The key to this appears to have been the provision of funds to systematically survey local areas for mounds typical of these ant species. They then implemented a multi-year eradication plan at each of the affected locations. In this way, they eliminated the nests and ensured that there were no surviving ants with the ability to reproduce. Achieving that requires making an investment and taking the threat seriously, so perhaps we should look to the future.
With the distribution of Siracusa nests and some geographical and atmospheric data, experts have managed to design a model that predicts the spread of these ants throughout Europe. It is estimated that under current conditions, they could affect 7% of our continent. It may not seem like much, but we must remember that many places that are not habitable for us are also not habitable for these ants, so the percentage of cities affected will be higher. In fact, researchers estimate that, taking into account temperature increases caused by climate change, 50% of European cities could be populated by these red fire ants.
The worst affected could be Rome, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and, of course, a large Mediterranean port like Barcelona. Realistically, it’s possible that we’ve already been ambushed without even realizing it, but even if we were clean, it’s only a matter of time before the mob reaches the peninsula, and we should be prepared.