Suffolk under fire ant quarantine

Published 10:39 pm Thursday, June 25, 2009

Suffolk is among several Hampton Roads localities under a fire ant quarantine, which regulates the movement of certain soil and plant materials, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced Wednesday.

The quarantine restricts the movement of articles that are capable of transporting fire ants out of the quarantine area — movement within the quarantine area is not restricted. The quarantine is temporary, but will become permanent when approved by the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Elaine Lidholm, spokeswoman for the department.

“You have a problem with fire ants in the Tidewater area,” Lidholm said. “It has gotten considerably worse just in the last year.”

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Fire ants are an aggressive species of ants that inflict painful stings when disturbed. They are typically found in warm, sunny locations such as landscape beds, lawns, around trees and shrubs, along sidewalk cracks and against buildings. Native to South America, the ants were accidentally introduced in Mobile, Ala., in the 1930s. The first sighting in Virginia was in Hampton in 1989.

Up until 2008, the department treated an average of 33 sites a year in the area, Lidholm said. However, in the last half of 2008, the number ballooned to 642 sites. An established fire ant colony can contain more than 300,000 ants, and control methods are often ineffective or simply cause the colony to move elsewhere.

The agriculture department will no longer attempt to treat fire ants in the Tidewater area. The sting of the fire ant causes a burning sensation, raises blisters that can become infected and can cause anaphylactic shock in sensitive victims. The ants also will attack livestock, wildlife, domestic animals and crops.

The quarantine applies to the counties of James City and York, and the cities of Suffolk, Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Poquoson, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg.

The regulated materials include fire ants in any life stage; soil; plants, roots, wood and equipment with soil attached; hay and straw that has been stored in direct contact with the ground; and honey bee hives that have been in direct contact with the ground. Plants maintained indoors in a home or office are not considered regulated articles.

“We do not expect the fire ant quarantine to have a negative economic impact on the area,” said VDACS Commissioner Todd P. Haymore. “Indeed, we will work with the affected communities and businesses to make sure that the quarantine will not deter economic growth in the greater Hampton Roads area, while helping to keep an injurious pest that can be quite harmful to humans, pets and agricultural animals from moving to other areas of the state.”

The regulated materials can be moved freely throughout the quarantine area. To be transported out of the quarantined area, the material must be certified free of fire ants by the agriculture department’s Office of Plant and Pest Services.

In addition, businesses and individuals that regularly ship regulated materials out of the quarantine area can enter into a compliance agreement with the department to allow for self-certification of the materials before they are shipped. To discuss such an agreement, call 562-6637.

Anyone who violates the quarantine will be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine up to $1,000, up to one year in prison, or both.

The department is hosting two educational meetings in the coming weeks to address questions related to the quarantine. The first will be held July 1 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center, 1444 Diamond Springs Road, Virginia Beach. The second will be held July 10 from 10 a.m. to noon at Tabb Library, 100 Long Green Blvd., Yorktown.