There has been terror spreading about a species of fire ants called red imported fire ants, which has been recently found in several sea ports all across the Korean peninsula. Many people were scared that these ants might begin to actively cause fatal damage to humans and they argued for the ants’ extermination at once. While their fears might be valid to some degree, it cannot be said that it is completely accurate.
The red imported fire ant, or Solenopsis invicta, is a species that has been sighted in Korea fairly recently. With its arrival, it has been showered with concern, both from the government and the public. It was included in the top 100 of the world’s worst invading species that were selected by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and Koreans feared its venom, which was said to be fatal. The government tried to take measures against the ants in response. However, it is questionable whether the public’s assumptions are really accurate—there might be a more pressing area that needs attention.
▲ Red imported fire ants. PROVIDED BY FLICKR
Occurrence of the Ants
The red imported fire ants were not found in Korea until last year. An incipient colony was first found in Busan Harbor, and there were five more cases of the sightings afterwards. The most recent finding in the Incheon Harbor possibly received the most attention because it was the first case in which a queen ant was found. Its sighting is a serious matter, because the existence of it alone increases the possibility of the ants breeding and spreading in huge numbers.
Since the queen ant can lead to such disastrous results, the Incheon Harbor was under heavy scrutiny. Experts were worried that there could have been masses of ants that already spread into the mainland even though the queen was found fairly quickly. However, after a “thorough inspection,” it was declared that the Incheon Harbor was safe, for now. This was because there were no additional queens or colonies, and there were also no sightings of princess ants or male ants.
The public has been frightened by the red imported fire ants ever since the news report of the first sightings in Busan. People were terrified that their deadly venom would cause mass killings. The name the ants had at that point, “the poison ant,” or “the killer ant,” did not help either. Although there were reassurances from ant experts that they were not as dangerous as they were speculated to be, and the common name was changed to “red imported fire ants” since then, some still worry that the ants might kill people. However, such concerns could be seen as overreactions.
According to Professor Koh Young-ho (Ilsong Institute of Life Science, Hallym University), an American entomologist, Justin O. Schmidt, and his team created the Schmidt sting pain index, which measures the pain of Hymenoptera insects’ sting, rating them from zero to four. The red imported fire ant only ranks a 1.2 in this scale, while the honey bee corresponds to a 2.0. Being stung by an insect that is 1.2 on the scale brings only slight pain.
Thus, because the venom is only at that level, it can be said that most people are far from being severely damaged when they get stung by the ants. If a person is stung once by a single ant, it is likely that it will not cause huge problems for the body. The pustules are not absolute reactions for everyone.
However, this does not mean that the fire ants are completely harmless—they could be dangerous in certain situations. “The seriousness of the effects of the sting can vary among people due to the different states of their immune systems,” said Professor Choe Jae Chun (Division of Eco-Science, Ewha Womans University). It is possible to die from being stung by a fire ant if one’s immune system could not fight off the venom. This is also true for the other insects such as honey bees.
▲ Professor Choe Jae Chun. PHOTOGRAPHED BY KIM SEUNG HYE
The Real Threat
Perhaps a more realistic and pressing threat is the harm the ants cause to the environment. There are two main categories to this kind of damage— economic and ecological. The economic side is considered to be very serious, as can be seen from countries that already have the ants. For instance, in the United States (U.S.) the fire ants cause $6,700,000,000 in financial losses annually. “There are various causes for the loss,” stated Professor Koh. “There are costs of medical treatments for those who were stung, direct devastation on agriculture, damage to agricultural machinery and to electrical equipment installed outside.”
▲ Professor Koh Young-ho
The ecological destruction is just as devastating. “These fire ants mostly tend to have polygynous colonies, which have several queens instead of just one,” said Professor Choe. This system allows them to adapt to foreign habitats surprisingly easily. While they do so, they kill indigenous organisms. In the birds’ cases, spawned eggs are attacked by the ants, and animals’ shelters are destroyed. Fire ants also drive the numbers of plants and beneficial insects down drastically. “In these ways,” explained Professor Koh, “the fire ants are capable of destroying the ecosystem, which could result in driving rare species to extinction.”
Although the environmental damage caused by the ants is a matter of great importance, there are no domestic policies directly aimed at it, simply because the ants have not manifested enough to severely damage the environment yet. However, it is impossible to stop the ants from manifesting in Korea forever, as they have already moved into nearby countries such as China and Taiwan, and are currently in the process of entering Japan. As it is inevitable, it might be wise to be a few steps ahead of them and prepare in advance to protect the environment when that situation occurs.
With the advent of the red imported fire ants, there has been exaggerated fear over the assumed potency of the ants’ venom. However, when the facts are examined, it can be understood that the poison is not much of a threat to most people. On the contrary, it is more likely that the environment will receive a larger impact than the health of the people—thus, perhaps it is necessary to pay more attention to this area.