One thing is for sure: fire ants are aptly named. Southerners — often sporting blisters and scars from encounters with the small insects — are all too familiar with this fact.
And those that don't yet have fire ants in their area don't want them. That's why USDA's APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service) has, with the help of state agencies, been watching shipments of hay, which fire ants like to nest in.
“We're trying to get the word out to hay producers on this,” says Terry Walker, director of the Arkansas State Plant Board Plant Industry Division. “We're asking them to call the Plant Board, contact county Extension agents or APHIS on this. Those groups can help farmers find the federal regulations that must be followed.
“The southern half of Arkansas is under quarantine. The southern half of Tennessee is under quarantine and the rest is not. Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Florida and Mississippi all have fire ants.”
Products within fire ant quarantine zones are allowed to move with no limitations. Once over the quarantine line, though, a transporter is subject to “significant” federal fines.
The current brisk hay trade is necessary because “Tennessee is really running dry — just like North Carolina. And Kentucky needs hay, too,” says Gray Haun, plant certification administrator with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
At the same time, Arkansas hayfields had plenty of rainfall and yield to offer bales for sale.
“Tennessee had a late freeze,” says Haun. “Earlier this year, there were several weeks of warm weather and then three days of freezing temperatures. That knocked back all the hay and nursery stock. Then, the weather became very dry. We did get some hay off the original cutting but it was very thin. Subsequent crops were next to nothing.”
Until recently the movement of hay from fire ant quarantine areas “hasn't really been on the radar screen,” says Charles Brown, the APHIS national coordinator for imported fire ants. “It normally isn't an issue because most states are able to produce enough hay. That isn't the case this year with such bad droughts in Tennessee and (the Southeast).”
Imported fire ants are a threat to both agriculture and human health. The insect can ecologically devastate an area, pushing native ant species out and driving away ground-nesting birds and mammals.
Introduced to the country around 1918 through the Mobile, Ala., port, it's estimated that fire ants cause $2.5 billion of damage in the country annually.
“There are three types of fire ants in the United States. There are black imported fire ants and red imported fire ants. Those two species interbreed to make a hybrid fire ant. Their current distribution is in 13 states as well as Puerto Rico.”
USDA has been involved with fire ants for 49 years.
“There was an early effort to eradicate them that obviously failed. Currently, we're trying to manage the problem. The current quarantines are part of that. We're trying to keep them from being spread artificially.”
Fire ants are so well established in the Southeast — as well as parts of California and New Mexico — that eradication is not an option. “The way they can move ‘artificially’ is through things like nursery stock, hay and other commodities. We don't want them hopscotching long distances. That's why there's concern with hay moving out of Arkansas' quarantined areas.”
For nursery stock, a number of insecticides can be used to treat soil around plants. Those kill fire ants in the soil and residual activity keeps them out.
There are no such fire ant insecticides for hay. In quarantined areas, hay that's stored in direct contact with the ground isn't eligible for movement.
“That pertains mostly to hay in square bales,” says Tom Hill, with the APHIS office in Little Rock, Ark. “If those are stacked, the hay that's above the bottom layer can be certified for movement. But that bottom layer has to remain.”
What about round bales? “Round bales are a bit trickier. They can be certified for movement if an inspector finds no fire ants.”
Some farmers put bales on pallets with plastic covering. “That keeps hay off the ground and helps keep the fire ants out,” says Haun. “The fire ants must carry sand granules up into the hay to build a nest. Pallets slow them down.”
Tennessee has a quarantine parallel to the federal one. Within the state, “we can actually be more restrictive than the federal rules. So, in Tennessee, we require that farmers get a permit prior to moving hay from a quarantined area. That involves a compliance agreement with us.
“We even recommend — although we don't require it — that the farmers show their permits on the invoices for shipments out of the state. That allows the other states to know that the farmer knows what's going on and has followed the regulations.”
Haun points out similar rules on the movement of honeybees. Imported fire ants often get under pallets the honeybees are riding on. That's been particularly a problem with the almond pollination business in California.
For two days during the first week of November, federal and Arkansas employees checked the flow of hay shipments at the I-40 weigh station at West Memphis. Loads were stopped to make sure hay had been inspected, was properly permitted and going to allowable locations.
Has any hay been sent back re-routed? “Some has been sent back from northern Tennessee,” says Walker. “The producer is responsible for picking it up and moving it. It's either that or pay the federal fine — and I doubt the fine is an option anyone will choose.”
Hill and colleagues “only eyeballed the weigh station a couple of days, just trying to see what was coming through. There was a lot of hay from Texas and Kansas.
“And there was south Arkansas hay shipping through there, as well. For some of it, that was a problem because the hay was shipping to non-quarantine areas of Tennessee.
“There was also a lot of hay heading from Arkansas to Kentucky, which was unexpected.”
Hill worked with the Arkansas Highway Patrol on the stops. “It wasn't anything but friendly. The main thing we wanted to do was just get a handle on how many shipments were moving and to inform the drivers about the laws.”
Only two trucks were sent home. “That was only because they didn't have a place to take the hay that wasn't non-quarantine. Most of the hay that wasn't under the regulations just re-routed into quarantined areas. The drivers called the person they were hauling for and found a new place to take the load.
“Hopefully, we got the word out and that was the main goal all along. We know that two days of stops isn't going to stop all the hay traffic. The farmers just need to know about this so they aren't put out.”
Are most farmers aware of the fire ant regulations? “Not in my experience,” says Hill. “Most of the guys on those trucks knew nothing about the fire ant quarantines.”