Invasive red fire ant spotted in Europe for first time, researchers say

The invasive red fire ant, or Solenopsis invicta, has been found in Europe for the first time and unless quickly halted could quickly alter the continent's ecosystems, researchers reported Monday. Photo by Insects Unlocked/Wikimedia Commons

Sept. 11 (UPI) -- The red imported fire ant, classified as one of the worst and costliest invasive species in the world, has been spotted in Europe for the first time, researchers warned Monday.

Although there have been several "interceptions" of the destructive and stinging South American ant species previously in Europe, an established, mature colony had never been found on the continent until this past winter in Italy, according to the authors of a study published in the journal Current Biology.

The team of Spanish and Italian researchers found 88 red fire ant nests across 5 hectares (12 acres) near the Sicilian commercial port city of Syracuse and determined through genetic testing that the colonies could have come via shipping routes from China or the United States.

The authors said they used wind tracking and species distribution modeling to determined that half of the urban areas in Europe "are already suitable" for infestation by Solenopsis invicta and that climate warming expected under current trends "will favor the expansion of this invasive ant."

Large cities such as Barcelona, Rome, London or Paris could be "considerably affected" by this invasive species, which can impact people's lifestyles due to its abundance and aggressiveness, the researchers warned.

"S. invicta is one of the worst invasive species. It can spread alarmingly quickly," lead author Mattia Menchetti of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Spain said in a release. "Finding this species in Italy was a big surprise, but we knew this day would come."

Unless authorities respond forcefully to the spread of the fire ants, there could be serious consequences for Europe's ecosystems, agriculture and human health, the authors warned, noting its sting is painful and irritating and can cause pustules and allergic reactions, possibly leading to anaphylactic shock.

"Coordinated efforts for early detection and rapid response in the region are essential to successfully manage this new threat, before it spreads uncontrollably," said Roger Vila, principal investigator at the Spanish institute's Butterfly Diversity and Evolution group.

The researchers said the public could play a key role in the detection of S. invicta, considering the ants are frequently found in urban and adjacent areas. It is fairly easy for untrained observers to detect their presence due to their painful stings and the characteristic mounds of their nests.