MERCED — Red fire ants are no laughing matter, and county administrators have pledged money to help fight the stinging insect.
The county supervisors have allocated a maximum amount of $26,744 to help the county agricultural commissioner fight red ant invasions.
David Robinson, the agriculture commissioner, said when beehives are brought into the county, it's usually just bees inside.
But there have been some hitchhikers.
According to the University of California Cooperative Extension, fire ants arrived with honeybees from Texas in 1997 and infested almond orchards in Kern and Fresno counties.
In 1998, the ants were detected in an area covering at least 50 square miles of Orange County, leading to a quarantine of the entire county.
Outbreaks appeared in Merced, Madera and Stanislaus counties. Some of the infestations may have been around for 10 years before they were officially detected.
Fire ants do more than leave a painful sting. They compete with native birds and mammals for food, and can wipe out an area of native wildlife.
"We're mandated to do these inspections," Robinson said. "Without these funds, we would be without the funds needed to do the job."
Every hive that comes into the county is inspected, Robinson said, but beehives aren't the only hiding places that are checked for bad bugs.
"We also do inspections at incoming facilities like Federal Express and UPS," Robinson said.
The beehives are starting to arrive in the county to help pollinate almond orchards, so Robinson's staff will be out in force for the next four weeks. Most almond trees start blossoming in mid-February.
"We have found some bad bugs in the inspections," Robinson said. "We checked more than 7,000 incoming shipments in 2008 and 36 of them were rejected for live pests or material."
Despite a program to eradicate the pests, they are still crawling into the county.
"Red fire ants are still a big problem," Robinson said. "They're not moving, and we have areas in Snelling and Ballico where there are big infestations."
Robinson said his staff is doing the best they can to get rid of red ants. "We have to deal with it here. We have to eradicate them," he said.