Fire ants heading north with landscaping materials

Thursday, July 24th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Fire ants, the tiny, pesky kind that attack with stinging bites, are heading north.

It's unlikely the ants are marching the whole way, though. Researchers say they're hitching rides with turf, shrubs and trees from Texas and southern Oklahoma, where they're under quarantine.

Landscaping shipments from an area under federal fire ant quarantine must be treated and held for 24 hours.

``Yet, you know when the grocery money is on the line, they don't always comply,'' said Jeanetta Cooper, horticulture program administrator for the Agriculture Department.

Oklahoma State University and state Agriculture Department researchers say urban colonies are isolated, but fire ants have been reported in Ardmore, Norman, Oklahoma City, Edmond, Stillwater and Tulsa.

Lorne Hall, president of Western Lawns and a past president of the Oklahoma Turf Grass Research Foundation, said it's possible fire ants are spread by landscaping.

``In our industry, too often anybody with a pickup and a shovel is qualified to call themselves a landscaper,'' Hall said. ``I would encourage the public to always buy from reputable sources.''

Fire ants are less than half the size of the red harvester ant, which also bites. The harvester is not as aggressive and doesn't give such painful bites, researchers said.

Several Southern states list fire ants as their No. 1 pests. They threaten wildlife, livestock and people. In their established region, fire ants kill an average of six people a year.

Oklahoma's fire ant problem declined dramatically during the cold, wet winter of 2000-01, then started spreading last summer.

``We don't know if it's drought related, or if biological controls have anything to do with it,'' Cooper said.

Fire ants were first discovered in Oklahoma in 1985 and have spread from the southeastern corner. As of summer 2000, the insect was in 34 counties, mostly in the southern and central areas of the state.

Eight southern counties in Oklahoma are under federal fire ant quarantine. They are Comanche, Carter, Love, Johnston, Marshall, Bryan, Choctaw and McCurtain.

``The days of the fire ant are certainly not numbered,'' said Russell Wright, head entomologist at OSU.

``They've been here for years now. Winter did the best job of killing them ... but we don't think we will ever kill all the fire ants in Oklahoma.''