There’s a fire ant quarantine in South Hampton Roads. Here’s what it means

The first fire ant infestation in the commonwealth was detected in 1989 in Hampton

Fire ants, an invasive species, were introduced to the United States decades ago through a port in Mobile, Alabama. (WYDaily/File photo)
Fire ants, an invasive species, were introduced to the United States decades ago through a port in Mobile, Alabama. (Southside Daily file photo)

Did you know South Hampton Roads and the Virginia Peninsula have been under a fire ant quarantine?

Stretching from James City County all the way to Virginia Beach, the quarantine, which went into effect in 2009, has limited the import and export of hay, sod, nursery plants and more in the area for nearly a decade.

While state agriculture officials say those restrictions are unlikely to change in the immediate future, there are still ways to manage fire ants in your backyard — and avoid their painful bites.

“You don’t want fire ants around, and if you have them around, you want to stay away from them,” Elaine Lidholm, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Fire ant mounds can look like papier mache or clay volcanoes made for school projects, Lidholm said.

The mounds are found in warm, sunny locations like landscape beds or lawns, as well as near trees and shrubs, and along sidewalk cracks and beside buildings. The ants can destroy crops, agricultural equipment and other wildlife.

When threatened, fire ants can become aggressive and respond rapidly to a believed attack. A fire ant sting typically turns into a small, blister-like sore that can become infected. Some people are also allergic to fire ant venom, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“If the crops are high, you can run into [the mounds] and damage your tractor,” Lidholm said. “Oh — they’re horrible.”

Kate Robbins, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for James City County, said she has not had any recent calls about local fire ant infestations, but she is always available to offer advice.

Why are fire ants here?

Black fire ants, an invasive species, were introduced to the United States around 1918 through a shipping port in Mobile, Alabama.

A second type of fire ant, the red imported fire ant, arrived through the same port in the late 1930s. Experts believe they may have been in soil used as ballast in cargo ships, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

The ants arrived in Virginia decades later, making the commonwealth one of more than 15 U.S. states and territories with imported fire ant populations.

The first fire ant infestation in Virginia was detected in 1989 in Hampton. VDACS believes the ants were introduced here through nursery plants and other plant products from infested areas.

Agriculture officials attempted to eradicate the ants from the state, and in 2009 put a quarantine into place in eastern Virginia.

What does the quarantine mean?

The quarantined area includes James City County, York County, Williamsburg, Poquoson, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Suffolk and Chesapeake.

The fire ant quarantine makes it illegal to ship any plant material, sod or mulch from areas known to be infested by fire ants to other non-infested areas.

There are exceptions, but only if they’re approved by the USDA.

The quarantine could be lifted eventually, Lidholm said, but only if there’s a “compelling reason” showing there have been no fire ants in the area for three years in a row.

At that point, the Virginia General Assembly to vote to change the law and lift the quarantine.

How can you get rid of fire ants?

Inside the quarantined area, VDACS does not treat fire ant mounds, meaning eradicating fire ants is in the hands of area residents.

Humans and pets should be kept away from the mounds, as the ants can sometimes attack without provocation, Lidholm said.

Exterminators use pesticides injected them directly into the mound to combat the ants. The chemical must come into direct contact with all of the insects inside, including the queen, to kill the mound. Some chemicals are not approved for animal pastures or cropland.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension says gasoline is not effective in eradicating fire ants.

“If gasoline was an effective fire ant control method, the United States would have been free of fire ants decades ago,” a cooperative extension publication reads.

Those looking to kill fire ant mounds within the quarantine area should contact their local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The James City County office can be reached at 757-564-2170.

If a fire ant mound is found outside of the quarantine area, residents should call the VDACS Office of Plant Industry Services. The Virginia Cooperative Extension does not recommend pest control operators try to treat fire ants outside of the quarantined area.

This story was published in partnership with our sister publication, WYDaily.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.