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, Merced County agriculture commissioner, said bees usually come into the county on beehives from out of state.
But they brought some hitchhikers.
According to the University of California Cooperative Extension, in 1997 fire ants arrived with honeybees from Texas and infested almond orchards in Kern and Fresno counties. In 1998 the insects were detected in an area covering at least 50 square miles of Orange County, leading to a quarantine of the entire county.
The outbreaks appeared in Merced, Madera and Stanislaus counties. Some of these infestations may have been around for 10 years before they were officially detected.
Fire ants do more than leave a painful sting. They also compete with native birds and mammals for food, and can completely wipe out native wildlife in an area.
"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 get checked for bad bugs.
"We also do inspections at incoming facilities like Federal Express and UPS," Robinson said.
Because the beehives are starting to arrive in the county now to help pollinate the almond orchards, 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."
And despite a program to eradicate the pests, they are still finding their way 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 the red ants.
"We have to deal with it here. We have to eradicate them," he said.