Fire ants found in southern Missouri

ST. LOUIS | The red imported fire ant, an aggressive stinging and biting nuisance that can also cause economic hardship, has made its way into Missouri.

A colony of the ants was discovered late last month in the yard of a home on the edge of the southeast Missouri town of Kennett. Missouri state extension entomologist Richard Houseman said Thursday that it was the first confirmed report of the fire ant here. The ant has also been reported in 13 other states — all in the southeastern U.S. except for California.

Houseman and Judy Grundler, entomologist for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said they believed the mound had been on the Kennett property for several months. No other mounds were found in the immediate area but a more extensive survey in and around Kennett is planned, Houseman said.

The ants have been in the U.S. for more than 50 years, arriving in soil used as ballast in cargo ships from their native South America.

Through their digging, the ants form massive colonies that can destroy crops, damage farms, hasten soil erosion, cause potholes in roads, even damage bridge joints and electrical lines. They cause an estimated $6 billion in damages annually in the U.S.

And, boy, can they bite. And sting. Entomologists describe them as ultra-aggressive as they go after everything, from other insects to small mammals, reptiles, livestock and humans. When they bite they release a pheromone that prompts all of the ants to sting simultaneously.

They can sting through clothing and the venom causes a burning sensation that earned the ants their name.

A bite or sting will cause blisters on human skin, and there have been rare cases of human deaths from red imported fire ants.

But mostly, it just really hurts.

"They both bite and sting, so it's pretty painful," Houseman said.

Officials aren't sure how the ants arrived in Kennett, but Houseman said it could have been from landscaping plants purchased in nearby states where fire ants are established, including Arkansas and Tennessee.