As reported in The Western Star in July 2011, entomologist and Corner Brook native Barry Hicks took samples of the ruby-coloured ants as part of his effort to discover exactly where the invasive little critters came from.
One of the theories was that the fire ants were the same species found along the eastern United States and the Maritime provinces, and were likely brought to North America via contaminated garden soil sold commercially.
Hicks conducted mitochondrial DNA analysis of ants found in western and eastern Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Maine, England and Germany. He has now confirmed that ants found on the island of Newfoundland are related to the fire ants found in England, not those found on the mainland of North America.
But the ants found in Corner Brook are not the same as those in eastern Newfoundland, according to Hicks. Not only that, there are actually two distinct and unrelated populations of fire ants in Corner Brook.
One of those populations can be found around the Glynmill Inn Pond. The second population is in the Country Road area of the city.
“Basically, we have discovered the ant populations in Newfoundland are from at least five introductory events,” said Hicks, who presented his findings at a meeting of the Humber Natural History Society in Corner Brook Tuesday evening.
The introductory events on the east coast seem to have happened longer ago. Namely, the east coast ants are believed to have been imported to Newfoundland via fishing vessels that would have been loaded down with British soil as ballast. Once those ships arrived in Newfoundland, they dumped the ballast and loaded up with fish to bring back across the ocean.
Hicks, a biology instructor at the Carbonear College of the North Atlantic campus, has two theories that would explain the more recent arrival of two distinct populations of fire ants to Corner Brook. He believes Sir Eric Bowater, the former paper mill owner who was known to be an avid gardener, may have imported exotic plants for his gardens at Corner Brook House on the banks of the Glynmill Inn Pond when he lived there in the 1940s.
“It’s possible some soil came to Corner Brook with those plants that had ants in it and has been spreading ever since,” said Hicks, noting the ants would have dispersed slowly and not over a great area.
Hicks has discovered there was another fancy garden and greenhouse in the Country Road area where a well-to-do resident also imported special plants from England decades ago.
“I spoke with a member of that family who told me her father used to, not get the same plants, but would order plants through Corner Brook House, so it’s possible he might have gotten ants from Britain too,” said Hicks.
Hicks has also done research on the impact these species are having. Some groups of native invertebrates, such as ground beetles and carpenters, are lower in numbers where these ants have populated.
“The numbers of native black ants are also down where there are high numbers of red ants,” said Hicks. “They are aggressive and they out-compete the native species.”