Fire ant infestation startles Nova Scotians

They've got a bite like a hornet's sting, leave an itch as bad as poison ivy and are smart enough to learn to avoid insecticide.

It sounds like a B-movie scare but this invasive species of ant is a real and growing concern in Nova Scotia. European fire ants have been turning up in new areas and there are localized infestations so bad that yards are unusable and people mow the lawn wearing protective gear.

Halifax is holding a briefing Monday night on how residents can protect themselves from these insects, which have appeared in New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario as well. But some scientists say little can be done to halt the march of the ants.

“I'd want to be three kilometres away, on the other side of some water, maybe with nuclear weapons,” joked Eric Georgeson, a retired entomologist with the province's Department of Natural Resources.

“They don't spread fast but they're persistent,” he said from his home in Lyons Brook, N.S. “I think the big thing with these ants is their ability to survive, to adapt and survive.”

Mr. Georgeson said that he started seeing the ants in many more parts of the province over the past decade and that their aggression toward other species has left the woods “quiet, too quiet.”

The ants can damage property, drive down real estate values and attack those who come too close to their homes. They are lethal only to a small percentage of people, who are thought to be hypersensitive to their venom, but cannot be dismissed as just a nuisance to others.

“If you had a toddler that fell down out there, those ants would be all over them,” Mr. Georgeson said. “It'd be like being bitten by a lot of hornets. It'd be a very unpleasant situation.”

Scientists warn that the national spread of the ants, which are vulnerable to cold, may be sped by warming winters.

“The cold was one of the great things about moving here,” said Rowan Sage, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto.

He had so many fire ant mounds near his former home in Georgia that his garden was an “obstacle course.” He would build bonfires on them occasionally, he said, but between the fire ants and the ticks and the chiggers, anyone who was active outdoors could look forward to months of itching every year.

“We had two seasons…the scratching season and the non-scratching season,” he said.

The itching from a fire ant attack, which Dr. Sage compared to a case of poison ivy, comes up to a day after the initial pain of the bites.

“When one of the ants starts biting it sends some kind of signal and they all start biting at once,” he said. “If you want to know the feeling, get a needle and heat it up until it's red hot and then stick it in your skin.”

Eric Ashton knows that feeling all too well. A Halifax resident, he is watching nervously as his neighbours grapple with fire ant infestations. They haven't colonized his property, but he's not sure he will be able to stop them.

“They seem to be a hell of a lot smarter than a normal black ant,” he said. “You're always looking down…wondering ‘are they here today?' It sounds like one of those television shows about aliens coming, but that's how we feel.”

The retiree has one neighbour who has to put on rubber boots before she'll dare go outside to hang her laundry.

“There's got to be something that the city will do or allow us to do,” he said. “They've got to allow us to kill the bastards. Not shoo them away, but kill them.”


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