Move over fire ants -- here come needle ants

The name alone is enough to induce a shudder: the Asian needle ant. The tiny insect with the oversized stinger packs a painful sting and has quietly invaded Southeastern forests, scientists say.

The needle ant ranges from Georgia to New York and is now widespread in the Carolinas, researchers have discovered. They say it poses an emerging risk to public health and to native ecosystems.

"We found it in large evidence," said Benoit Guenard, a graduate student at N.C. State University who is writing a doctoral dissertation on the ant. "We found them in every forest in the Raleigh area. People have them in the backyard."

The ant isn't readily recognized, even by insect experts. In August 2006, Guenard was collecting insects in Umstead State Park soon after arriving at NCSU and found an unfamiliar ant. About 50 ant species are known to inhabit the Triangle.

Eventually, Guenard identified the insect as the Asian needle ant, native to Japan. It is black, slightly longer than a fire ant and more slender.

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