It’s taken nearly a century, but fire ants have finally arrived in Kentucky.
“They’re here,” said Steve Bloemer, a veteran wildlife biologist for the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. “We’ve confirmed that they’ve moved from the Tennessee portion of LBL into Kentucky.”
This will be of little concern to most of the Commonwealth. Ants are not highly mobile creatures and, well, they’re ants, which aside from being a general annoyance would seem to be a minimal threat to anything.
“They can be very detrimental to wildlife and humans,” Bloemer said. “They bite and sting. And when they sting, they can inject venom.”
Moviegoers might recall that fire ants took down the Russian bad guy in the 2008 action-adventure flick Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In one of the fight scenes from that movie, an army of swarming fire ants overran the Russian thug and dragged him, headfirst, into their mound where, moviegoers were left to assume, the ravenous insects devoured him.
That scene was heavily dosed with Hollywood hyperbole. But fire ants can be nasty critters and are surprisingly aggressive when a nest is disturbed.
“They are a danger to humans because of the sting,” said Joe Collins, a senior nursery inspector for the Office of the State Entomologist at the University of Kentucky. “And you don’t just get stung by one. It’s multiple stings. When a mound is disturbed they come ‘boiling out.’ They rush out to defend their nest.”
Fortunately, the risk isn’t widespread. Yet.
“I think we’re quite a ways from seeing a major infestation,” Collins added. “What we’ve seen so far are just individual mounds.”
There are only a handful of known fire ant colonies in Kentucky soil, and they are in and around the LBL property. Bloemer, Collins and anyone else giving fire ants a thought would like to keep it that way, although that doesn’t seem likely. Once an invasive species gains a toehold, it becomes difficult to erase and soon becomes part of the landscape.
A fire ant sting results in an intense burning sensation. The fire ants that have moved into Kentucky are about 1/8-inch long. Colors range from black to brown to reddish.
“The ones that come boiling out of the mound are about the size of the common black ant you see around your house,” Bloemer said. “But the easiest way to identify fire ants is by the mound. It just looks like a mound of loose dirt.”
Fire ants are a South American import. They likely arrived in the United States in the early days of the last century in the bowels of a cargo ship that sailed into port at Mobile, Alabama. Soil was commonly used as ballast in the hold of ships, and the ants likely hitchhiked northward through the Atlantic and Gulf in the ballast dirt. These were black fire ants. About 20 years later, red fire ants made their way northward, likely by the same route.
They’ve since spread to 15 states, Kentucky being the most recent.
Sarah Moy had the challenging summer job of locating and mapping active fire ant mounds in the Land Between the Lakes. The U.S. Forest Service intern was up to the challenge. We met at the LBL visitors’ center, then made a short drive to her most recent discovery. Less than 20 yards north of Highway 68/80 in the road right of way, she led us to a basketball-size mound of loose dirt, the only sign that we were standing near a colony of fire ants. The ground below the nest might have been a meter in diameter, although there was no way to tell.
The mound appeared to be no more than a pile of freshly tilled dirt. There wasn’t an ant in sight. A broomstick-size hole punctured one side of the mound.
“Is that where they come out?” I asked.
The recent University of Nebraska graduate shook her head. She moved cautiously, carefully.
“That’s probably where someone poked it,” she said.
It would seem that the advance of ants would be very slow. Sarah had identified three other fire ant mounds on the Kentucky side of the LBL, but they were close to the Tennessee border, miles from this spot. When I asked how the ants might have reached this hillside patch of sunshine just north of the highway, she gave a shrug.
“I don’t know. Sometimes, they are carried by vehicles or equipment,” she said. “But just naturally, one mound creates a new mound, and they geographically disperse.”
As lightly as you would politely knock on a neighbor’s door, I tapped the side of the mound with a stick. In less time than it took to type this sentence, the mound was dark with emerging ants. Within seconds, they had covered the mound and the ground surrounding it.
“Careful,” Sarah said.
We stepped back and watched. The ants, now an uncountable number, formed a strangely organized, tight perimeter around the mound. When no danger was encountered, they slowly retreated.
“Yeah,” Sarah said. “Wow.”
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