The red fire ant invasion 'creeping closer' to London

Deadly insect considered one of world's most invasive species has been spotted in Europe for first time

Drawing of a red fire ant
Drawing of a red fire ant
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Deadly red fire ants may "invade" Britain, researchers have warned after the first official sighting of colonies in Europe.

Entomologists have found 88 red fire ant nests spread over five hectares near the city of Syracuse on the Italian island of Sicily, said The Telegraph's science editor Sarah Knapton. And according to a new study, London is a "prime candidate for colonisation", she added. 

Causing death and destruction

Considered to be one of the world's most invasive species, fire red ants can deliver a bite or sting that causes a burning sensation and, in some cases, chest pains, nausea and dizziness. 

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Their sting can also cause "nasty pustules and allergic reactions, possibly leading to anaphylactic shock", said the Daily Mail

The ants have been responsible for more than 80 deaths in the US, where an estimated 14 million people are stung each year.

Not only humans are at risk. The species can rapidly form "super colonies" that "prey on invertebrates, larger vertebrates and plants, destroying native plants and out-competing native ants, insects and herbivores for food", said author and natural history writer Patrick Barkham in The Guardian.

The ants can also "infest electrical equipment including cars and computers", he added, as well as houses and crops.

Estimated to be the fifth most costly invasive species on the planet, the ants have spread through human trade from their native South America into Mexico, the Caribbean, Australia, China, Taiwan and the US, where they cause an estimated damage of $6 billion (£4.8 billion) each year.

‘Knew this day would come’

"Finding this species in Italy was a big surprise," said Mattia Menchetti from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Spain, "but we knew this day would come."

 Genetic analyses by Menchetti and fellow researchers suggests that the invasive colonies could have come from China or the US. And an analysis of suitable habitats suggests that the ants could invade 7% of the European continent, the team said in a study published in Current Biology

The species prefers farms and cities, and could possibly infest half of Europe's urban areas, according to the experts.

 The scientists are now planning an “eradication campaign” in Sicily, said Science magazine's Erik Stokstad, and will "destroy the known nests" and search for more. 

The area will also be monitored for several years to make sure no ants escape, and volunteers will be recruited from across Europe to keep an eye out for further infestations. "Citizens can play a very important role in this," said Menchetti.

 Study co-author Roger Vila agreed that "coordinated efforts for early detection" and "rapid response" are essential to "successfully manage this new threat, before it spreads uncontrollably".

‘Don’t worry too much’ 

The "urgent alert" about the ants invasion comes as the "lethal and aggressive insect" is "creeping closer to Britain", said The Sun.

Amid mounting speculation about the potential threat, The Guardian's Jonathan Watts recalled his "painful" encounters with the ants while living in its native Latin America. During one attack, during a barbecue in his garden, he was stung "multiple times in rapid succession".

 "As more and more joined the attack, the build-up of alkaloid poison turned my skin blotchy and the sensation felt less and less like a pinprick and more and more like a burn," he wrote.

All the same, Watts added, "I would not worry too much" about this potential invader.  "Despite headlines about killer insects", the risks are "manageable for most people" provided "you are not allergic".

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