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Nation’s biting fire ant invasion expands north again through heart of North Carolina

Fire ants create a “raft” to survive floodwater

These fire ants are bunch up and float together to survive.
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These fire ants are bunch up and float together to survive.

The plague of invasive, aggressive fire ants in North Carolina has shifted farther north and west, prompting the state to add three more counties to the official “fire ant quarantine” area.

Davidson, Orange and Vance counties are now part of a quarantine zone that restricts moving such things as plants and dirt to non-infested counties to the north and west, according to a Nov. 28 press release from the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma continue to be part of the northern range of the nation’s growing fire ant infestation, making containment critical, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The latest northward shift of the quarantine zone means 75 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are now considered home to a pest know for swarming and stinging, says the department.

During Hurricane Florence, fire ants also became known for floating, after state officials confirmed colonies were forming “rafts” to escape the flooding, reported the Charlotte Observer.

“Two aspects of red imported fire ant infestations are particularly annoying,” says the N.C. State Cooperative Extension.

“The unsightly mounds formed in lawns and yards, and the painful stings received when mounds are disturbed. Within 24 hours after a person is stung, a pustule-like sore often forms at each sting site.”

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Those pustules itch, like a case of poison ivy, and “may rupture the skin, leading to secondary infection and scarring,” the extension service warns. In some cases, bite victims have allergic reactions serious enough to require medical attention, state officials said in a release.

The quarantine for Davidson, Orange and Vance counties goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019, at which point permits will be required for anyone transporting a long list of agricultural-related products to counties considered free of infestation, said a state press release.

Included in the list: Plants, sod, soil, hay, straw, logs, and any used farming or landscaping equipment, according to the release.

Items moved illegally to non-infested counties could be destroyed by the state to thwart the spread of fire ants, said Phil Wilson, of the N.C. agricultural department’s plant industry division.

“Fire ants can be harmful to humans and livestock,” Wilson said in a press release. “It is critical we continue proactive efforts to slow down fire ant movement.”

State extension service biologists say the ants are native to southern Brazil. They currently inhabit parts of 11 states in the southern U.S., say state officials.

The ants first appeared in North Carolina in coastal Brunswick County in 1957, says the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

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Eddy Hoyle, of Hilton Head Island, describes what happened the first time she was stung by fire ants and how she came to realize just how allergic she is to them.

These small clusters are just the beginning. Fire ants bunch together and form ant "rafts" to survive.

Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs
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