By Hugo Struna | EURACTIV France | translated by Daniel Eck

 Est. 5min

 Sep 14, 2023

Red ants build mounds of earth in fields, damaging crops and infiltrating electrical installations. In the US alone, the annual cost of damage caused by fire ants is estimated at $7 billion. [Anwar Attar / Shutterstock]

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Scientists are urging national and EU authorities to take swift action against the rapid spread of the fire ant, a highly invasive species with the potential to cause major health and environmental damage.

Read the original French story here.

A team of scientists from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona claim to have discovered 88 fire ant nests in Sicily, quite a jump from their origins in South America.

The species is now found worldwide, but this is the first time it has been found in Europe.

“The fire ant is considered one of the worst invasive exotic species and the fifth most costly in the world, affecting ecosystems, agriculture and human health,” explains the journal Current Biology in an article published this week.

In countries where it is abundant, such as Australia, China, and the United States, the insect causes significant environmental damage by attacking native species – including other ant species – and biting humans, causing a stinging sensation.

The spread of this species would have severe consequences for the climate, health and agriculture.

Ants build mounds of earth in fields, damaging crops and infiltrating electrical installations. In the US alone, the annual cost of damage caused by fire ants is estimated at $7 billion.

“Residents have informed us of frequent ant bites in the area since at least 2019, suggesting a prolonged presence” of the fire ant, the scientists stress.

While they are still unsure of the causes of the species’ arrival in Europe, it could be explained by the winds, or rather the importation of soil and plants, as the discovery is located near one of Sicily’s main freight ports, the Port of Augusta.

Contacted by Euractiv, French researcher Bernard Kaufmann, a specialist in biological invasions at the University of Lyon, explained that this discovery was widely expected.

“We’ve been waiting for this for 30 years; we thought one day it would come ashore, and we wouldn’t know what to do. But here we are,” he said.

Invasive exotic species are now considered one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. According to IPBES, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the annual cost is more than $423 billion worldwide, four times more than in the 1970s.

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From Portugal to Bordeaux

But this is just the beginning, according to the scientists.

They say the ants could quickly spread across the connected regions of southern Europe along the Mediterranean coast.

Research shows that if the spread is not stopped, most European countries will be affected by 2050, with high concentrations in urban areas due to higher temperatures.

“Half of Europe’s urban areas have already adapted and […] the global warming expected on current trends will favour the expansion of this invasive ant,” they predict, admitting their “concern” for the future.

But Kaufmann is more cautious.

“The researchers only took temperature and land use into account in their modelling, but things are a bit more complex,” he said.

“Nevertheless, it is certain that these ants can now establish themselves in all warm regions of Europe, from Portugal and Spain to Bordeaux in France. With global warming, this will extend to more northerly regions,” he admitted, warning of the species’ high colonisation capacity.

EU legislation

At the EU level, a Regulation adopted in 2014 sets out rules for the prevention, minimisation and mitigation of the adverse impacts of invasive alien species (IAS).

It contains a list of more than 80 species of concern that are prohibited from being imported, transported, marketed, used, cultivated or introduced into the environment. In the event of an invasion, the law requires states to eradicate these species within three months.

In anticipation of this, scientists have managed to get the fire ant Solenopsis Invicta added to the list in 2022.

“If the European regulations are applied quickly, it is still possible to eradicate this species and prevent it from spreading across Europe. But we need to act fast,” said Kaufmann.

Since  Sicily is an island, the speed of its spread can be limited.

In Italy, “eradication plans are underway,” the Corriere della Sera newspaper reported.

In Spain, scientists call for “coordinated detection efforts” and surveillance that “should be extended to a larger geographical scale”.

Everyone, including the general public, should report sightings, as the species is atypical in several respects (stinging, mounds of earth), they added.

In France, a portal has been set up for reporting encounters with invasive alien species.

For Kaufmann, the question is whether the ant is already present elsewhere. Because “when it does take hold, it does so on a massive and irreversible scale”, he warns.

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