For the first time there is evidence of the dreaded red fire ant in Europe. Dozens of nests of the invasive species were discovered on the Italian Mediterranean island of Sicily, as a research team reports in the journal “Current Biology”. “We knew this day would come,” said lead author Mattia Menchetti of the Spanish Institute of Developmental Biology.

It is feared that the invasive species could quickly spread to other European countries thanks to climate change. Initially, cities in the Mediterranean region and cities with large ports such as Amsterdam or London are particularly at risk, the research team explained.

Originally from South America

Originally from South America, red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) were first introduced to the USA. The small but very aggressive animals that eat a variety of other insects spread rapidly there from around the 1930s, and the populations of native ants were drastically reduced in several US regions. There is also high levels of crop damage. As a result of global trade and tourism, the fire ant later reached many other countries such as Japan, China, Australia and New Zealand. “S. invicta is one of the worst invasive species,” Menchetti said. “It can spread at an alarming rate.”

Literally translated, the scientific name Solenopsis invicta means “the undefeated fire ant”. When attacked, the animals first bite and then inject secretions from their poisonous stingers into the wound, often several times in quick succession. The secretion contains substances that cause a burning skin reaction. The attacks are also very painful for humans and cause itchy red pustules. In extreme cases, it can even be life-threatening for allergy sufferers.

88 nests near Sicilian city

The scientists discovered 88 nests, some with several thousand ants, on a five-hectare area near the Sicilian city of Syracuse. Residents have reported biting attacks since at least 2019. How exactly the species got to Sicily is still unclear – according to genetic analysis, probably via routes from the USA or China. A journey via merchant ships and wind currents is assumed.

According to the study, individual red fire ants had previously been found on imported products on the European continent, for example in Spain, Finland and the Netherlands. According to current knowledge, there has never been a population in the wild.

New Zealand was able to eradicate the fire ant again

According to information, the only country that has been able to eradicate the red fire ant with a multi-year program is New Zealand. The scientists recommend taking the island nation in the Pacific as an example. “We need a coordinated approach, and we need it now,” emphasized Menchetti.