Farmers who buy hay and straw from areas of the country under quarantine for imported fire ants should take precautions, warns the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

“Drought conditions across much of the nation have centered the fall hay market in the southern U.S.,” says George Greig, Pennsylvania state ag secretary. “Use precautions when buying from quarantined locations.”

Before placing orders for hay or straw, buyers should find out if their suppliers are within quarantine areas. More than 343 million acres are quarantined in the southeastern U.S., much of Texas and southern Oklahoma, parts of New Mexico and California and all of Puerto Rico. Greig advises visiting the USDA-APHIS Web site, click on “check your zip code now,” and enter the sellers’ zip codes. If the hay or straw is located in a quarantine area, it must be certified for movement by the state from which it is shipped.

As bales are delivered, buyers should visually inspect them for evidence of fire ants. The ants look similar to common house or garden ants but have a copper-brown head and body with a darker abdomen. They are very aggressive and swarm to defend the colony and queen. Fire-ant venom causes painful skin welts and, in rare cases, death to humans and animals.