05/17/2012 11:47 EDT | Updated 07/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Fire ants invading B.C. gardens

European fire ants are spreading through gardens B.C.’s Lower Mainland and unleashing stinging attacks on the unwary.

The ants are considered highly invasive and have shown up in a number of locations, including a community garden in Burnaby, where caretaker Abdul Majid said he set out traps after he was stung.

“It turns red and swells up,” Majid said. "I think different people have different reactions to them."

Gardeners using the site had tests performed and learned the garden has been overrun by the fire ant, which means certain precautions now have to be taken.

“They can make using lawns or gardening almost impossible when they get quite dense,” said entomologist Robert Higgins, of Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake. “And you certainly wouldn't want to let small children or pets out in the back yard.”

Tendency to swarm

It's hard to tell the difference between types of ants in B.C. just by looking at them, but Higgins says the European fire ant behaves differently from others. Unfortunately, the behaviour often isn’t apparent until they attack.

“It has a tendency to swarm when the nests are disturbed — and sting.”

This ant first arrived in Eastern Canada about 100 years ago, but has not been seen in B.C. until now. Higgins said the species appears to have been imported in bedding plants.

The good news is the ants do not appear to get into houses, but once they are in a lawn, they are extremely hard to get rid of.

With the arrival of May long weekend - a traditional time for planting - gardeners are being urged to watch what they're bringing home from nurseries and garden sales.

“If they do see any evidence of ants, it's recommend that the root wads be immersed in water for a minimum of one hour,” Higgins said.