Fire Ants Gaining a Foothold in the State

Fire ants have long been found further south of Kentucky. Since 2000, they have been annual issues in the Land Between the Lakes area of our state. Surveys in that area have found multiple mounds of ants but Kentucky has not been fully listed as “invaded” as these mounds are eliminated once found. While regulatory efforts were focused on the western side of the state, the fire ants were also gaining traction on the eastern side. Earlier in 2022, a call from McCreary County Extension led to the confirmation of fire ants on a private residence in that county. The mounds there were treated and follow up inspections showed that the treatment had been successful. Unfortunately, this turned out to not be the only site. As of June 2022, there are now several confirmed finds in McCreary County and one in neighboring Whitley County.

Fire Ant Basics

There are two main species of fire ants that are considered invasive species in the U.S. The red imported fire ant is the more widely distributed pest, becoming widespread in the U.S. during the 1940s. The less famous species, the black imported fire ant, is more cold-tolerant than their red cousin. Further complicating the situation, these species can mate and hybridize, creating an even more cold hardy species. The ants found in eastern Kentucky have been hybrids.

Fire ants are known for building large mounds. These are easiest to see in the spring when not hidden by taller grass. During field visits, inspectors in Kentucky have noticed that nests are typically in open sunny areas or on south-facing slopes for warmth. Nests can be found in disturbed environments most often and they like cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Inside of the nest there can be hundreds of thousands of workers.

Figure 1: Fire ant mounds are found in disturbed environments and can be in urban or rural areas. When the mound is disturbed, fire ants are famous for “boiling out” to defend their home. (Photo: Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org)

How did they get here?

Most likely the pests were imported with the movement of material like pine straw or possibly soil. Fire ants are often inadvertently moved around thanks to goods like these. They can also float as ant “life rafts” when there are floods. It is thought that may be how they arrived in western Kentucky. Once they were introduced, the colonies could have gotten larger and eventually reproduced by sending out new queens to found their own nests.

Why is this an issue?

Kentucky is not considered an “infested” state. With the western counties periodically experiencing new colonies, new locations in the east could mean could lead to quarantines put in place to try and curb the spread. This would lead to restrictions in the movement of certain goods out of quarantined counties that could impact farmers. If implemented, a quarantine would limit the movement of hay, forestry equipment, nursery stock, construction equipment, etc.  Fire ants can also be agricultural pests and reduce yields in infested fields.

The biggest issue with fire ants, though, is their medical hazard. They will defend their nest by biting the offending animal and while clamped on, each individual ant can sting multiple times. The sting area tends to hurt and burn, then turn red, and eventually a pustule will form that can resemble a pimple.

What to do?

If you suspect you have a fire ant mound on your property, or know where one might be, please report it so that we can properly identify areas where they are occurring.  To report a mound, it is helpful to send a picture along with an address or GPScoordinates.  Reporting can be done in several ways:

  • Email Joe Collins joe.collins@uky.edu
  • Contact the UK Entomology Facebook page through Kentucky Bugs on that platform
  • Your local county Extension office can help put you in contact with us as well.

By Joe Collins, Deputy State Entomologist, and Jonathan L. Larson and Ric Bessin, Entomology Extension Specialists

Posted in Human Pests
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