Public Domain/USDA Fire ants are seen in this undated photo. Oak Bay B.C. is being overrun by aggressive European Fire ants.

Oak Bay resident Shelley Sullivan is afraid of stepping foot in her own backyard. Just one misstep could land her with a foot swollen to triple its size.

“I remember being out in a garden, all of a sudden 40 of them were on my foot. For some people there’s probably allergies, I used to swell up a bit, it would be terrible,” she says. “It’s not as harsh as a bee or wasp, but the initial reaction was lots of swelling – that gets kind of painful.”

The culprit? Colonies and colonies of tiny red European fire ants setting up shop on her front yard, backyard and pretty much all the yards spanning roughly a whole city block in her neighbourhood.

Measuring just four millimetres in length, she noticed these tiny aggressive pests taking over her lawn over the last decade. Sullivan says the most remarkable characteristic of these ants is their ability to swarm.

“As soon as you put pressure onto an entry on their nest, it doesn’t take more than a few seconds, 50 to 60 ants are on it right away,” she said.

She noticed them growing not only in numbers, but also becoming more aggressive with each passing year. Sullivan and her husband never knew what kind of ants they were until reading about them in the media.

On a quest to find out why ants in their neighbourhood are preventing her neighbours in the area from hosting BBQ parties, children and dogs from playing in yards, or Sullivan from doing her gardening work, the couple sent out a sample of the ants to B.C. entomologist Robert Higgins earlier this summer.

Higgins, who studies ant ecology and biodiversity, went back to them with the bad news. They were a positive match with the invasive European fire ants.

But it’s nothing new to Higgins, who’s been studying this species of ants for a few years now. He says he’s seen more and more of these ants pop up in the area over the years. They’ve been discovered in Chilliwack, North Vancouver and Burnaby,“they’re peppered across the region.”

According to Higgins, these invasive pests create two to three new nests each year in close proximity to one another. As these colonies grow, they become more defensive.

Not much is known about the ants at the moment but with new funding from the province over these worrisome pests, Higgins is hoping to learn more about how the tiny yet pesky insects are spreading.

Right now, Higgins believes their movement is constrained by roads, but need to be further tested, he explained.

“If you know that this ant exists and you’re being diligent about looking for it popping up, you can catch it if there’s only one or two colonies, at that point you can physically dig them out and destroy them, it isn’t hard to do,” Higgins said. “It’s when they become really well established that it’s virtually impossible to eliminate them.”

Sullivan says her and her neighbours have tried every method they could think of, but to no avail.

“We did the standard stuff, some people just burned them, and they would take a little burn torch, other people would use pesticide,” she said.

Higgins said this species of ants often drive out native species that perform a number of,“important ecological functions, so it’ll turn over nutrient movement and pest control in urban landscapes.

Other than being a nuisance by attacking people out of the blue, the ants are spreading. Sullivan is worried what this could mean if it spreads into public areas.

For now though, Higgins does not have a solution for homeowners.

“We don’t have great advice for homeowners that’s effective,” he said. “One of my main goals is to just let people know it’s out there and to stop them from getting into new areas.”

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