Climate change aids spread of stinging ‘needle’ ants

Watch out: An invasive ant with a nasty sting could soon move into your neighborhood.

The Asian needle ant no longer lives in just Asia. In the 1900s, the bugs reached eastern North America and quickly spread. In a 2006 study, researchers examined the effects of the ant’s sting after the invaders began assaulting zookeepers at a South Carolina zoo. The ants often stung people on the legs, buttocks, arms, and hands; victims complained of swelling, pain, and itchiness lasting up to two weeks. In Asia, the venomous pokes have been reported to cause severe allergic reactions.

Since ants are sensitive to climate, researchers wondered how global warming would affect the spread of this unpleasant species. So they ran computer models to predict which parts of the globe would become suitable for Asian needle ants over the next century. By 2050, the species’ potential habitat will expand by 29 percent, the team reports in PLOS ONE. And by 2080, it will rise by roughly 65 percent.

New infestations could spread across parts of Europe, South America, and North America, according to the study. In North America alone, we can expect to see nearly 2 million square kilometers of new habitat open up to the ant invasion. “Our models suggest that the species has a far greater invasive potential and is capable of invading large parts of the global landmass on several continents,” the authors write.

Painful stings aren’t the only reason to fear this ant. Invasive ants can hurt native ant populations, harm crops, and swarm houses. But knowing when and where this species might strike next will help managers prepare for the worst — and try to deflect the ants before they settle down for good.Roberta Kwok | 7 October 2013

Source: Bertelsmeier, C., B. Guenard, and F. Courchamp. 2013. Climate change may boost the invasion of the Asian needle ant. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0075438.

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