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Red fire ants spreading across Europe: Are they harmful?

Red ants (Magdalena Smyczek - Wikimedia Commons)
Red ants (Magdalena Smyczek - Wikimedia Commons)

Red fire ants, dubbed the world’s most invasive species, have been spotted in Europe for the first time in history.

A new study has revealed that the red fire ant is known for spreading alarmingly quickly and could soon be all over the continent.

While the red ant is able to fly into wind streams to travel locally, Europe had been able to evade them for all this time.

Now that they are on the UK’s doorstep, here is a comprehensive look at red fire ants, including where their original home is, what makes them so invasive, and if they pose any risks to humans.

Where do they normally exist and where have they been found now?

Red fire ants, scientifically referred to as Solenopsis invicta, originate in South America.

To date, they had been reported in places like Australia, China, the Caribbean, and America. Now, they have started to settle in Italy.

Researchers found 88 ant nests in Sicily, and while some of them belonged to worker ants, some were confirmed to be red fire ant nests.

Based on the DNA of the Sicilian red ant queens, the scientists believe that the specific species in Italy came from either the US or China.

They are estimating the species will continue spreading across the continent, warning that the climate crisis might expedite their spread.

The study’s senior author Roger Vila shared: “This is especially concerning because many of the cities, including London, Amsterdam, and Rome, have large seaports, which could allow the ants to spread rapidly to more countries and continents.”

What makes them an invasive species?

Red fire ants are able to spread and establish themselves in new areas of the globe incredibly quickly.

Their spread from their home in South America has been aided by humans and our maritime trade industry and intercontinental selling of plants and plant products.

Are they harmful?

Red fire ants get their name from their painful sting, which causes a burning sensation before becoming an itchy, circular welt. These welts then become blisters.

Their stings can cause intense pain and skin irritations that last from a few hours to a few days.

They are known to attack their victims in groups when they can, so an individual can suffer from a cluster of stings.

While most people can manage the pain and the reaction by using antihistamines, cold compresses, hydrocortisone creams, and similar remedies, some might develop an allergic reaction to the sting and die from anaphylactic shock.

People with severe allergies to fire ant venom typically develop symptoms like breathing difficulties, dizziness, confusion, and swelling of the tongue or throat, minutes after being stung. These individuals require urgent medical treatment with epinephrine.