Japan launches all-out war against fire ants

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The Ministry of Environment is fighting a multi-pronged battle against the highly poisonous fire ants to prevent them from taking hold in Japan.

The fire ants, native to South America, measure between 2.5 and 6 millimeters and often hitchhike to Japan on container ships, mostly from China. The reddish-brown and highly aggressive insects were first discovered in Japan in June 2017. A total of 84 cases found in 18 prefectures had been confirmed by the end of November 2021.

If bitten by ants, people can develop severe pain and even die. Finds of fire ants have increased over the past two years. From last April, the first month of fiscal year 2021, through the end of November, there were 20 discovery cases, already the second highest annual number, after 26 in fiscal year 2017.

Fire ants have been found not only in international ports, such as those in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, but also in places in inland prefectures, including Tochigi and Saitama, where shipping containers have been delivered.

Recently, large ant colonies involving multiple queens have also been discovered, raising concerns about possible colonization by the invasive species.

Although the nests discovered so far have been destroyed, the fire ants are “one step away from colonization because there can be large nests deep under the ground”, said Koichi Goka, head of the risk section. ecological and control at the National Institute of Environmental Studies. .

Central and local governments work in conjunction with private exterminators and other agencies to prevent colonization. Every summer and fall, 65 ports across Japan are checked for fire ants. Any discovery of ants is followed by extermination races and inspections. If a nest is found, the surrounding area is monitored regularly for three years.

For inspections held at privately managed premises, which is often the case, government staff must obtain prior approval from the owners. Approval applications are sometimes refused for reasons such as obstructing the transport of containers.

Under the current law on invasive alien species, a compulsory inspection is possible in a room where the presence of fire ants is confirmed by an expert. However, as a certain number of days are needed for confirmation, the ants can spread to the surroundings.

Since reports of finding fire ants are not mandatory, authorities simply ask citizens to report whenever they detect the insects.

In an effort to bolster the fight against fire ants, the ministry plans to seek legal revisions in the ongoing ordinary session of parliament to give statutory power to on-site inspections and allow government officials to enter fire ants. premises even before the presence of a fire ant is noticed. confirmed there if a fire ant is found in a nearby area.

The ministry is also considering giving legal backing to the existing system whereby a business operator who finds a suspected fire ant on their premises reports it to the ministry through local government.

Additionally, the ministry is moving forward with measures to prevent the arrival of fire ants from abroad. For an international conference to be held in China this spring, the ministry has proposed a set of international rules for checking and cleaning the insides of containers before transport.

“We are at the crucial stage to prevent the installation of fire ants by all means,” said a senior ministry official.

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