The increase in green spaces in urban areas might have contributed to the spread of red imported fire ants in the southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, officials said.
Local agriculture authorities in Hezhou said Tuesday that the transport of unquarantined turf to increase greener pastures in the city had resulted in an outbreak of red fire ants in the area. The ants are tiny but poisonous and are known to be one of the world’s most hazardous invasive species, affecting both humans and crops.
Chinese cities often transplant massive amounts of turfs and trees, oftentimes with soil, to make urban landscapes lush. But experts told Sixth Tone that replanting without adequate quarantine is a rampant problem, accelerating the spread of red fire ants.
“As long as your turfs or trees are from an area (with red fire ants) and are not quarantined, more than 90% of them could carry the ants,” said Lü Lihua, a researcher at Plant Protection Research Institute of Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Sciences. “The transport of turfs and trees have become the main route for the long-distance and leaping spread of red fire ants.”
China requires a quarantine certificate for trading transplanted vegetation, but reduced manpower and overlapped function at different government bodies have hindered implementation, according to Lü.
Agriculture experts said the pests wreak havoc on local crops as they eat sprouts and newly-grown buds. Farmers in the city of Hezhou are also staying away from farms fearing the ants since they can cause blisters and allergic reactions in humans — some places have even reported deaths after people were stung by them.
“It is an ecological killer,” said Lü. “There are rules (for quarantines) but implementation is a problem.”
Fire ant mounds in Guangdong province, 2021. Courtesy of Lü Lihua
He added that one of the foremost challenges is strengthening collaboration between different government entities in implementing existing rules, suggesting local authorities learn from the netted grid-style social management that China has relied to control COVID-19.
Red fire ants, which originate from South America, were first found in China’s southern Guangdong province in 2004. Since then, they have spread to 11 more provinces, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.
In recent years, China has labeled red fire ants a national concern, allocating funds for local governments to control the pests. China’s biosafety law, which went into effect this April, has also listed containing invasive species as one of the top tasks for the country, while a high-level task force has been formed specifically to tackle the problem of red imported fire ants.
Ran Hao, a researcher at Key Laboratory of Ecology of Rare and Endangered Species and Environmental Protection in Guangxi, believes that one way cities could reduce the spread of imported red fire ants, as well as boost soil immunity, would be by using more locally grown plants instead of sourcing non-native species.
“Construction destroys an area’s original soil ecosystem, and the process of transplanting turf will actually help red fire ants to quickly occupy an ecological niche,” he told Sixth Tone. “If the turf is not quarantined or treated with insecticides, such risks will be high.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: People Visual)