Red fire ants, a known invasive species in the United States and Australia, have recently been detected in Sicily, Italy. Researchers have raised concerns about the possibility of their spread to other parts of Europe, which could have significant consequences for the environment, public health, and economy.
The red fire ant, scientifically known as Solenopsis invicta, is notorious for its dangerous sting, which can be painful and occasionally pose health risks, especially to individuals who are allergic to its venom. Additionally, these ants are known to cause damage to crops, leading to agricultural losses, and they have the unusual ability to infest electrical equipment, including cars and computers. This unique behaviour can result in technical malfunctions and costly repairs, making the presence of red fire ants a multifaceted problem wherever they establish themselves as invasive species.
In an article published in the journal Current Biology on September 11, a group of ant experts confirmed that the species has made its way to Sicily-the ant’s first official sighting in Europe.
“S. invicta is one of the worst invasive species. It can spread alarmingly quickly,” says lead author Mattia Menchetti of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Spain. “Finding this species in Italy was a big surprise, but we knew this day would come.”
Although it originated in South America, S. invicta has spread quickly, flying into wind streams to travel farther on the local level. But humans have also helped it spread both through the maritime trade industry and by shipping plant products, enabling it to establish itself in Australia, China, the Caribbean, Mexico, and throughout the United States in less than a century. Europe has evaded them for longer than expected, say the researchers.
“There are a vast number of alien ant species currently establishing themselves in Europe, and the absence of this species was kind of a relief,” says Menchetti. “For decades, scientists have feared that it would arrive. We could not believe our eyes when we saw it.”