Inter-Ministry Invasive Species Working Group

European Fire Ants

The European fire ant, Myrmica rubra, was first recorded in BC in 2010 and has since been confirmed in several isolated locations in Vancouver, North Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, Chilliwack, Victoria and Courtenay. The fire ant is likely to occur in other neighbouring municipalities. The species is native to Europe and Asia and was first introduced to eastern North America in the 1900s. Over the past ten years it has become a significant pest in a number of states in the US and Canadian provinces. European fire ants prefer moist environments, making irrigated lawns and gardens on the West Coast of BC an ideal place to become established.

The European fire ant is an aggressive, swarming ant that can deliver a painful sting when disturbed. In uncommon cases this has lead to allergic reactions that have required medical treatment. Colonies can reach densities of up to four nests per square metre, rendering gardens, lawns and parks unusable for normal activities. The ant also has the potential to impact agricultural crops and has been shown to displace native ants in their natural environment.
The most likely method of introduction and spread is through the movement of infested garden and landscape material such as soil, mulch and potted plants. Once established, the colonies also spread naturally through "colony budding", where one or more queens and a group of workers will leave the colony and establish a new satellite colony. The new colony often establishes less than a metre from the original colony.

Eradication may not be possible but there are a number of things that can be done to minimize the impact of this species and prevent its spread, including:

  • making your property less favourable to fire ants by avoiding or minimising lawn and garden watering, and removing objects that trap heat and moisture;
  • not moving soil, mulch or plants from infested areas;
  • baiting with boric acid, and
  • raising awareness in the community.

For more information about this species, including natural history, distribution and spread, and options for control, see the FAQ section, the Useful Links section, or visit Dr Higgins' website.

How to find out if you have fire ants on your property

If you think you have European fire ants on your property the first thing you should do is confirm their identity. Some native species of ant look similar or may behave in a similar way so it's important to confirm which species you have before attempting any control methods. Identification services are provided free of charge, all you need to do is collect some samples and ship them to one of three locations.
Step 1: Collect a sample. Instructions on how to do this can be found here.
Step 2: Send your samples to one of the following locations for identification. Please include your name and the date and location where the samples were collected.

  • Preferred location: Plant Health Laboratory, Ministry of Agriculture: download and complete the necessary form. Please note that any positive samples will NOT be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) as this species is not a plant pest and is therefore not regulated under the federal Plant Protection Act. Shipping instructions can be found on the back of the form.
  • Alternate location 1: Dr Rob Higgins, Department of Biological Sciences, Thompson Rivers University, 1250 Western Avenue, Williams Lake, BC, V2G 1H7.
  • Alternate location 2: Natural History Section, Entomology Dept, Royal BC Museum – Attn: Claudia Copley, 675 Belleville St, Victoria, BC, V8X 9W2.

Public submissions of ant samples will be useful for establishing how widespread this species is in BC and could help determine the best options for control. Your personal information as well as the exact location of any positively identified fire ant colonies will be kept confidential. However, a list of regions or municipalities where fire ants have been confirmed may be made public in order to facilitate outreach and control activities.

2012 Planning Sessions

Two workshops were held with governments and stakeholders on the invasive European fire ant, Myrmica rubra. The first planning session in June 2012 involved learning about the biology and distribution of M. rubra, as well as current control methods. The planning session initiated a Joint Action Plan for communication between key stakeholders to address the growing public and biological concern towards fire ants.
Joint Action Plan Objectives:

  1. Improve mapping/inventory of fire ant distribution in BC ;
  2. Deliver support workshops for identification;
  3. Improve communication and education;
  4. Identify relevant regulations/legislation: federal, provincial and local levels;
  5. Increase research.

The second workshop was held in November 2012. The aim of this workshop was to update representatives of affected communities on field work and research completed to date, measure progress against the Joint Action Plan, and develop next steps in dealing with the fire ant issue. Stakeholders involved in the discussion are collaborating to deliver the objectives set out in both reports. Together, the control of the spread of M. rubra in BC is promising. Both Fire Ant June 2012 Planning Session Reports may be viewed here:

Frequently Asked Questions

Adult worker

I think I have fire ants on my property, what should I do?

The only way to know with certainty that you have the European fire ant is to collect specimens and send them in for identification, as described above. This service is provided free of charge, however you will need to cover the costs of shipping your samples. Your personal information, as well as the location of any positively identified fire ant colonies, will be kept confidential.

What is the government doing about fire ants?

The provincial government is aware of European fire ant's confirmed presence in several urban areas in BC. The Inter-Ministry Invasive Species Working Group (IMISWG) is collaborating with various experts, local governments and non-government organisations. Work is currently underway to determine the extent of the invasion in BC and to determine options for control and/or preventing the spread of this species. The European fire ant is a difficult pest to manage. At this time, we can offer diagnostics and general pest management information for ants (see above). You may also want peruse the 2012 Fire Ant Planning Session reports above.

Where did this ant come from?

The European fire ant is native to most of Europe and Asia. Its natural range runs west from Ireland to the border with China in the east. It is found from the Mediterranean in the south to the northern border of Scandinavia. Records from the US Department of Agriculture show that this ant has been repeatedly found in plants coming from Europe. The European fire ant has been present in parts of eastern North America for several decades and it's unclear whether the ant arrived in BC from eastern North America or Europe.

Attacking an earthworm

Is this ant a problem in Europe?

Not really. In its natural range it appears to be kept under control by the native ant fauna. High nest densities reported for Europe reach perhaps 1 colony per 10 square metres. In North America we see densities of up to 4 colonies in a single square metre.

Why is this ant a problem in North America but not Europe?

We can't answer this question completely but a couple of factors may be important. First, the ant exhibits different life history characteristics here compared to its native range, such as forming very high nest densities (i.e. up to 4 colonies per square metre). Second, many species of ants will behave more aggressively when they dominate a given area. Thus, while this ant is known to sting readily in Europe, it isn't as aggressive there because it never dominates an area in the way it can here.

Does this ant sting or bite?

All ants are capable of biting, although with the possible exception of our largest BC carpenter ant (native to the dry interior grasslands), none is really capable of breaking the skin. These sometimes painful "bites" are actually pinches, but removing the ant ends the experience. Some ants in BC also have a true stinger, however, they rarely sting. The European fire ant readily uses its stinger. This injects venom under the skin that first burns (30 minutes to 2 hours) then itches for a few days to a week.

The BC invasion represents the northern-most spread of this species in North America; could it spread further north and could this be related to climate change?

Populations of the European fire ant in Europe range over a large area (up to 70 degrees North). Even in its normal European range, a fire ant colony from the Mediterranean would not likely survive in Scandinavia as each population is adapted to its local environment. We do not know where the fire ants in North America originated (this is currently being investigated) so we cannot be certain of what environmental limits (such as temperature and precipitation) it could tolerate, but in BC it currently occupies areas with greater than 1000 mm of rain annually where mean annual temperatures are above 6° C.. Given this, this ant could potentially spread up the coast as far north as Prince Rupert. In southern BC it may spread inland to Hope and possibly establish in the higher precipitation areas of the Kootenays. It will not likely establish in the dry interiors. There is no known connection between the ant and global warming at this time.

How did this ant get onto my property?

It most likely arrived either with new plants (bedding plants, trees, or contaminated soil or mulch) or has spread from adjacent properties.

red ants mugging a caterpillar

What impacts can this ant have on my property, in urban areas, or in natural ecosystems?

It appears that European fire ants are limited to urban areas in coastal BC so far. Risks identified include stings to people who tread on nests, loss of use of green space, both in private backyards and public parks and grounds. Research n BC and eastern North America shows that, where the ant is established, there is localized loss of biodiversity, i.e. European fire ants displace other species of ants. At this point, we have no information to confirm that the ant is outside urban areas in BC.

Why should I worry about the arrival of this species in BC?

The primary risk of European fire ants is people getting stung. Therefore, it would be in the best interest of the public to become knowledgeable about the signs of presence of fire ants and what do if found. Loss of use of green space if the ant becomes widely established should also be of concern to the public.

How do I get rid of this ant?

ant size

There is not yet an effective method for eradicating European fire ants. However, there are a number of approaches that could minimise impacts and prevent the spread of the ant:

Deterrents: This ant loves moisture. It likes tall grass and well irrigated lawns and raised garden beds, as well as the ground under lawn clutter (children's play structures, stored BBQ tanks, etc.) Minimising watering and keeping your property free of clutter may help prevent the spread of the ant. It also likes heat, which can come from paving stones, ornamental stones, and landscaping wood. These items warm during the day and hold that heat overnight making them a better nesting site than open areas. Consider placing gravel under paving stones and ornamental rocks to dissipate the heat. If possible, place gravel immediately behind landscaping ties for the same purpose.

Baiting: Baits appear to offer some limited promise in controlling ant numbers. We are currently recommending baits that contain 2% (w/w) boric acid in a sugar solution. Such baits are commercially available from places where you can purchase household pesticides. Many ant baits have a higher boric acid content (4-5%) and should be avoided as these higher concentrations may deter the ants from collecting the baits.

Help prevent the spread: One of the most common ways of spreading this ant is through the movement of contaminated soil, mulch and garden plants. Check that landscaping supplies you purchase or bring to your property are not contaminated with European fire ants.

A community approach: Coordinate with your neighbours and your municipality. One homeowner is unlikely to see results as new ant colonies will invade from adjacent properties. Talk to your neighbours about the coordinated use of baits and other deterrents. Call your municipality and make sure you are dealing with the European fire ant and also get the latest in recommended controls.

More detailed information on any of these approaches can be found here.

Useful Links