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Electric ants, hornets: The battle against invasive species in France

The electric ant which has a painful bite was first detected in France last summer. Experts are now racing against the clock to stop the spread

Electric ants are tiny but can appear in huge numbers and spread quickly via ‘supercolony’ nests Pic: Raja Sopan Purba / Shutterstock

Invasive species – especially electric ants – and the damage they wreak on the ecosystem are becoming a major issue in France despite the launch of a strategy against them five years ago.

The phenomenon is continuing to worsen due to a lack of preventative actions, an expert has said.

The species particularly in the spotlight include: 

  • The electric ant, originally from South America

  • The Asian hornet, originally from Southeast Asia

Electric ants in particular were first seen in France in summer 2022, in a house in Toulon in Var in southern France. The species has a painful bite and forms ‘supercolonies’ of several nests. It is also a predator to all other ant species and has no predators in France. It is spreading across the country.

This is despite the government having put a plan in place, against what are officially known as ‘les espèces exotiques envahissantes (EEE, exotic invasive species)’ five years ago. The plan included actions to tackle species including the 88 that are banned from import in the EU.

EEEs are defined as invasive species that are introduced into different ecosystems due to human activity, for example, via accidental import in vegetables or plants.

They have been identified as one of the five major threats to biodiversity, the economy, and health by global platform the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Electric ant shock

Entomologists in France are now working to determine the extent of the electric ant spread in particular in a bid to combat it as quickly as possible. 

Biologist Olivier Blight, at the University of Avignon, explained how the plan had been difficult to implement. He told Le Monde: “The most difficult thing, at the beginning, was to identify who is responsible in the government. Who does what, with which budgets? We lacked a defined route.”

Mr Blight said that even now “there is still a way to go when it comes to [the plan’s] concrete application on the ground”.

He said that it is currently tough to find insecticides that will kill them sustainably. He said: “If you really want to get rid of the ants, you can’t just use a bomb that will kill the ones walking about on the surface. You really have to take action at the heart of the colony.

“No-one in France has experience of doing this because it’s the first time we’ve found the species here, so we’ve had to seek expertise from people who have been doing it for years.”

Authorities in Toulon have also launched a campaign asking members of the public to report any sightings of the insect. You can send a photo and description on their website or a dead species (in coton or in a tube with alcohol) per post.

Quentin Rome, one of the entomologists who receives some of these alerts, and who is in charge of the natural heritage campaign in Paris, told Le Monde: “Where they are prolific, they really have a very significant impact on biodiversity, on other species of ants, other animals, the species of plant that they take over. 

“They also have an impact on human activity; the reason they’re called electric ants is because their bites feel like getting an electric shock. It’s painful, and some people can become sensitive and have allergic reactions.”

‘Don’t be complacent’

Ben Hoffman, an entomologist and researcher in Australia, where the ants are prolific, said: “My advice is to not be complacent about this species. 

“Imagine trying to sleep at night and you’re being stung in your bed. Imagine your pet cat going blind but you can’t see what’s causing that. Imagine your garden being completely unusable because the ants are completely all over the plants.

“That is essentially the story of this ant. Before we even start on the environmental aspects, where precious species go extinct.”

In the country, Queensland uses insecticides, sniffer dogs and public TV adverts to fight the species and warn people against them.

‘A little revolution’ needed in France

Entomologists in France are now researching ways to kill the ants, using products that they will eventually have to get formal approval and permission to use in the country. 

The classification of the ant on the EU list of EEEs means that France is now required to mount eradication plans to combat the species within three months of its detection in a given area.

Luc Gomel, an expert in invasive ants, said: “The quicker we treat this outbreak, the more of a chance we have to eliminate it completely. So these different…state services must mount a battle and work together. 

“But unfortunately it’s not really part of the culture in this country, so we’ll need a little, urgent revolution.” 

Asian hornets

The Asian hornet, another invasive species of insect that has been spreading across France, was first detected in the country in 2004. 

They cause damage to bees and hives, and can also be deadly to humans who are allergic.

Read more: Read more: War on wasps and hornets declared in the Dordogne 

Read more: French scientists fight Asian hornet ‘in own language’ 

In 2020, researchers announced a ‘very promising’ research project that was aiming to fight the hornets ‘in their own language’, while various prefectures and local authorities have announced plans to keep the insects at bay and advise residents on how to deal with them. 

In 2021, the Oriental hornet, different again from the Asian hornet, was first spotted in France. 

Related articles

France to take action against Asian hornets and other invasive insects 

Do not destroy Asian hornet nests - new advice from French experts 

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