In drought-stricken areas short on hay, growers may literally face another sting next summer: Imported fire ants spread beyond the current USDA quarantine zone.

These tiny, aggressive red or black ants construct large dirt mounds (see photo below) and inflict painful stings in mass when disturbed. They make it miserable for animals to graze and growers to haul hay bales; their mounds also damage mowers.

Imported fire ants already infest much of the Southeast and parts of the Southwest that are under a long-standing quarantine. Regulated products, including hay, must be free of fire ants if transported beyond the quarantined area that splits some states, including Arkansas and Tennessee, in half.

“Ants in hay are a concern,” says John Jennings, University of Arkansas Extension forage specialist. “We told producers here all summer to ask for ant-free certification on Southern hay, but each state charges a hefty fee for certification, which greatly limited who was willing to pay it.”

USDA isn’t enforcing the quarantine well enough to protect hay buyers, he contends.

“Most people receiving hay this year are not familiar with fire ants and probably don’t know how to make sure the hay they bought is free of fire ants,” says Paul Shell, plant inspection and quarantine manager for the Arkansas State Plant Board. His agency requires inspections and certification of any Arkansas hay that moves from a quarantine. “USDA says that, as long as the hay was stored correctly (off the ground), it is good to go. But we don’t know that it has been stored correctly unless it has been inspected andcertified.”

Mike Vanstory and his son, Brett, of Mason, TN, produce hay within the quarantine zone. Vanstory stores hay on pallets under a compliance permit issued by Tennessee to prevent movement of imported fire ants. About 600 bales were sold to northern Arkansas producers this past year.

“When they picked up the hay, I’d tell them the hay was certified fire-ant-free. It mattered to one guy. Another – I believe he would have taken the hay even if it had fire ants.”

“Fire ants are a significant annoyance,” says Kelly Loftin, University of Arkansas Extension entomologist. “If fire ants become established in a non-quarantine county, it will become quarantined and that will restrict the movement of regulated items like nursery stock, hay and grass sod.”

Not everyone understands the problem, notes Loftin. Some sellers charge buyers premiums for certification. And some, even within Arkansas, are taking advantage of the hay shortage.

“I became aware of somebody in north Arkansas who was shipping in hay from the south and initially not asking for certification. Now he asks. But he is bringing in hay, reselling it after storing it all in the same place and telling producers that if they want certified fire-ant-free hay, it’ll cost so many dollars more,” says Loftin.

“We understand the hardships facing the farmer from this drought,” says Charles Brown, manager of the USDA-APHIS imported-fire-ant quarantine program. “We are very clear that there is a tremendous demand for hay and there are a lot of people with livestock who are in desperate need of hay. Our goal is to help hay producers and sellers move safe, clean hay out of the areas of the quarantine so that it can get to where it is needed.

“Most hay can move without any problem and without any restriction. What is regulated is hay that has been stored in direct contact with the ground. The key point here is to ask the seller if the hay is being stored and, if it is, to ask that it not be stored in direct contact with the ground,” he says. “What fire ants really like is soil. Hay is not a preferred place for ants.”

Loftin advises producers in fire-ant-free areas who bought uncertified hay from quarantine areas to take precautions. Before feeding hay, store it on a barrier surface such as a 6-mil plastic sheet and bait the perimeter with attractants, such as greasy potato chips, to draw fire ants out. You should know within a couple of hours if fire ant workers are in your hay.

“Even if you do not see fire ants in your hay, it may not mean that your hay is fire-ant free,” he cautions. “Hay may contain newly mated queens. Check repeatedly with bait next spring and fall, concentrating around hay feeding and storage areas.”

Buyers who find the pests in hay need to contact their county Extension agents or state plant boards for help with eradication, says Shell. Fire ants are most likely to show up where hay was off-loaded or stored, or near “warm spots” such as asphalt. It could take several years before it’s determined whether imported fire ants moved with the hay, he cautions.

A USDA alert about requirements for moving hay out of quarantine areas is available at 1.usa.gov/RXQjQm. To determine whether a seller is in a quarantine area, visit www.aphis.usda.gov and enter his or her zip code in the “Search APHIS” text box.

Southern U.S. areas shaded in pink encompass the imported fire ant quarantine area.