Last year, a spring freeze and dry summer left many Tennessee farmers and landscapers buying hay from outside sources, but was hay the only thing they imported?

In the last six months, fire ants have been found in two previously uninfested Tennessee counties where hay was imported from fire ant-infested areas of the Southeastern U.S.

Karen Vail, University of Tennessee Extension entomologist leading the fire ant control effort, says it is especially important for those outside fire ant-regulated areas to be proactive about protecting their area from imported fire ants.

While product purchased from dealers should be permitted, Vail recommends those accepting hay from regulated areas request a copy of the seller’s permit. She adds, “Inspect the hay once it arrives and continue to inspect for several years the grounds where the hay was stored or used.”

Imported fire ants are stinging insects that live in mounds and were accidentally introduced from South America in the first half of the last century. They’re a foe to be avoided if at all possible. The sting isn’t as painful as a wasp sting, but it can be fiery and itchy. Most people react with a pustule at each sting site, but a small percentage of people have a more severe reaction requiring immediate medical attention.

In addition to the medical concern, fire ants can change human behavior. Pat Parkman, another UT Extension entomologist, says, “We will reduce our recreational activities if fire ant populations go unmanaged.” Parkman adds that the pests are known to short electrical equipment, and damage lawns, walkways and roads.

Hay yield is lost due to raised cutter bars or dulled and broken equipment caused by contact with the mounds. Germinating seedlings can be clipped and tuberous or ground crops tunneled through.

The entomologists explain that fire ants tend sucking pest insects (such as aphids) and protect them from natural enemies, deter hand labor, damage irrigation equipment and possibly kill hatching birds or newborn calves deposited onto mounds. Some southern farmers will place livestock “mothers” in a designated birthing pasture that has been treated to reduce fire ant populations because of the damage the fire ants can do to the young animals.

Vail said a recent estimate puts annual damage and repair costs attributed to imported fire ants in the U.S. at over $6 billion even though they infest only about 320 million acres in 13 states and one territory. “It is imperative that we don’t introduce fire ants into new areas,” she emphasizes.

If hay is from a fire ant-quarantined area outside of Tennessee, it is highly advised to have the seller ask for an inspection and a permit from his state’s Department of Agriculture. The permit should accompany the moving hay. The seller can find the number for his Department of Agriculture’s state plant regulatory official at http://www.nationalplantboard.org – click on members.

Hay must have been stored off the ground in order for the hay to qualify for shipment out of an IFA-regulated area. Hay in contact with the ground is a prohibited item for movement out of an IFA-regulated area (federal code of regulations — 7CFR 301.81). Hay bales one stack above the ground would qualify for movement as would hay stored on plastic.

Tennessee state rule requires a compliance agreement for any hay in Tennessee moving out of a Tennessee regulated-IFA area. A permit number will be assigned to the compliance holder and will appear on invoices for the moving hay.

Contact the Tennessee Department of Agriculture — Regulatory Services for more information (615) 837-5130. Another option to avoid importing fire ants in hay is to import hay only from areas outside the fire ant quarantine.

Regardless of whether the acquired hay is accompanied by a permit, the farmer should still inspect the hay for imported fire ants! Even if the hay was inspected on arrival and no fire ants were found, growers in uninfested areas should check their grounds for fire ants this spring and for the next few years. Mounds may not be apparent for several months. Tennessee Department of Agriculture personnel estimate it takes about two years for most owners to notice a fire ant mound on their property.

Fire ant regulated areas can be found in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, California and fifty-two counties in Tennessee. See the Web sites: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/plant_health/plant_pest_info/fireants/index.shtml, http://fireants.utk.edu

The USDA-APHIS has just added a new feature to their Web site that will allow one to determine IFA quarantine status by entering a zip code. See: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/plant_health/plant_pest_info/fireants/fireantquery.php

Should a farmer outside the fire ant-infested areas suspect that fire ants have arrived in a shipment of hay or by other means, the local county Extension agent can help with ant identification and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture should be contacted as soon as possible.