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SILENT SPRING: THE 'VIETNAM OF ENTOMOLOGY'

How the red fire ants remained undefeated

In the 1930s, the Red Imported Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta) was accidentally introduced to the US from Argentina, through the port of Mobile, Alabama. The ant quickly expanded its range throughout much of the south and southeast of the country. This ant has a painful sting, can damage some crops, and the colony mounds interfere with farm equipment.

In 1958, large areas of the USA were sprayed with the insecticides dieldrin and heptachlor in an attempt to destroy the fire ants. The widespread spraying temporarily reduced the population of the ant, but the insect rebounded and continued to extend its range. The ant colonies produce thousands of new queens that each can start a new colony, so missing just a few colonies means that the ant can regenerate its numbers very quickly.

While the ant was not controlled, livestock and wildlife, including birds, suffered from the toxins that affected the nervous system, often causing death. Thus the target pest was affected very little, but many other living things were badly impacted. The spraying for Red Imported Fire Ants ceased in the late 1960s. The name invicta means undefeated. E.O. Wilson, one of the world’s most renowned entomologists, coined the term, “Vietnam of Entomology”, for this failed campaign of eradication.