Fire Ants and Fury: These Little Pests Made Aliyah, and They're Wreaking Havoc on Israel

Fire ants, who have infested nearly 300 Israeli communities, are a painful and pricey problem: 'If I see an ordinary black ant in my house, I hug it'

Little fire ants. The invasive species has infested almost 300 communities throughout Israel and is spreading at an accelerating rate.
Forest Starr & Kim Starr

Not only has the little fire ant reached Israel, the species is spreading at an accelerating rate. As the authorities twiddled their thumbs and did nothing to stop the invasive species in its tracks for years, the ant has invaded almost 300 communities including by the Sea of Galilee – Israel’s one real lake, experts warn in a paper published last week. 

Little fire ants are considered one of the world’s worst pests. Without a national plan to curb their proliferation, they are liable to cause enormous economic and environmental damage, the report said. 

The ants’ arrival is not news. An earlier report already predicted five years ago that, from 2030 onward, the ants would cause about 1.2 billion shekels ($340 million) worth of damage each year.

What is news, is that the tropical ants have reached the shores of the Sea of Galilee, otherwise known as Lake Kinneret. From there, since they can form “rafts” by interlinking their legs and can float, they can easily spread all around the lake. 

The first time little fire ants were spotted in Israel was at Kibbutz Afikim in 2005, after children leapt out of the swimming pool in tears from painful stings. The original ants are thought to have arrived at the kibbutz’s woodworking factory in a wood shipment from Brazil.

Since then, the tiny insects, averaging about millimeters in length, have spread widely. Loci have been found in the Jordan Valley, along the Mediterranean coast, throughout the Galilee, the Jerusalem hills, and even in the stark desert of the Dead Sea and Eilat.

They often spread by infesting plant nurseries. “You buy a plant, you bring it to a neighbor and you’ve transferred it from one place to a new one,” said Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy, chief scientist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

Fire ants.
Plegadis

The arrival of the little fire ant is a life-changer, and not in a good way. Last Thursday, researcher Ittai Renan of Tel Aviv University (full disclosure: he’s a friend of this reporter) presented his new study at a conference at the Dead Sea Research Institute in Masada, co-sponsored by the parks authority and the Environmental Protection Ministry.

“When this ant settles down in an area, quality of life is seriously impaired” Renan said. “People can’t sit on the lawn. They get stung all the time. Even inside the house, you’re always being surprised. You get out of the shower and dry yourself and you get stung. You get stung in bed.”

Bad as being stung in bed sounds, the ecological damage is even worse. A population of little fire ants “clean out” everything they encounter, devouring everything – insects, reptiles, baby rodents and baby birds. The moment a nestling cracks the shell, they mobilize thousands of individual ants, driven by pheromones, to devour it.” Little fire ants are also bad for pets. If they sting a dog or cat in the eye, the animal might go blind. 

Then there’s the economic impact. Now that the damage the little fire ant can cause is clear, if for instance the ant  reaches a packing house and someone in Europe gets a shipment and finds this ant in it, they’ll stop working with that packing house.”

Hellish pain in HerzliyaThe  2013 study  found that 116 communities were already infested. Renan’s study found 280, more than double the 2013 figure. But he suspects the true figure is even higher, because there are likely many infested communities that haven’t yet identified the ants.

“It began when my young daughter screamed in pain,” says Reut Zelinger, a former resident of Herzliya Pituah. “We couldn’t understand what had happened. After a few days, I felt the pains, and they’re hellish pains. I looked at my hand and saw the ant. They’d gotten into the bedroom and the bathroom.” They called in an exterminator  but a year later the ants had returned.”

“Every year, it’s spread to new areas,” said Chen Kraus of Kibbutz Hamaapil. “What it means is that you can’t be on the grass outside. They also enter the house and wander about on the sofas. The kibbutz exterminates once each season and that gives us a month’s quiet. Then they return. 

Speaking of ecological damage, one sign that of the fire ants’ arrival is that suddenly, all the other species of ants disappear. Practically all other insects, actually. “If I happen to see an ordinary black ant in my house, I hug it,” Kraus says, metaphorically.

It’s so bad that in some parts of central Israel, parents and children have stopped going to playgrounds for fear of being stung.

One factoid about the local fire ant infestation is that all, absolutely all, of the little fire ants in Israel are offspring of a single queen. She is the one who came to Kibbutz Afikim in the late 1990s, according to a genetic study by Merav Vonshak of Tel Aviv University. 

Ergo, all the nests consist of clones, or at least very genetically similar ants. That may explain why the various fire ant nests in Israel don’t attack each other. One corollary is that you can have many nests living near each other in harmony, allowing the ants to spread rapidly.

Leaking from the lake

The fact that these ants have now been found near Lake Kinneret is especially worrying. Since they can float, that any strong rain that sweeps a nest into the lake would enable it to migrate easily to the other side. Renan believes that most of the lake’s beaches will be infested iwn another few years.

But despite the grim picture Renan painted, he stressed that all is not yet lost. Elsewhere in the world, including Hawaii and the Galapagos, little fire ants have been exterminated from extensive areas. Kibbutz Kalia near the Dead Sea recently managed to exterminate the ants, with help from the parks authority and the Environmental Protection Ministry unless aggressive action is taken.

Shkedy, of the parks authority, said he not only agrees with the concerns Renan’s study raised, but thinks they may be understated. “What’s happening with the fire ants is just the tip of the iceberg of the invasive species problem,” he said. “Today, we have no way to deal with this.”

Perhaps the biggest problem of all may be this: that neither the parks authority nor any other agency in Israel has been empowered to attack the ant and enforce regulations to constrain its explosive proliferation. Nobody even has the authority to bar infested nurseries from continuing to sell plants and thereby spreading the infestation.

It is true that parks authority has been working with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel to push through legislation giving it the power to take action against invasive species. But it is also true that while a nationwide, coordinated effort could help, especially in isolated areas surrounded by inhospitable desert like the Dead Sea and Eilat, no effort could eradicate the little fire ant from Israel, without eradicating everything else too. The ant is here to stay.