A dog park in Richmond, B.C., is warning pet owners to take caution as a fire ant invasion sweeps through parks across the province.

European fire ants have taken hold at McDonald Beach Park and officials say the pests pose a health and safety threat to humans and pets alike. The tiny ants deliver a stinging, itchy bite if their nest is disturbed and are prone to swarming if their nests are disturbed.

“So it’s like a bee sting but by the time you realize you’re in trouble you’re probably going to have a lot of ants on you,” said Jen Grenz of the Metro Vancouver Invasive Species Council.

Grenz says the biggest risk is having multiple stings, which can lead to an allergic reaction – or anaphylaxis.

“You can go into shock from the venom,” she said.

Brenda Stockel, a dog walker with Bark and Fly Pet Services, says dogs who deviate from the marked trails are bit frequently – and severely.

“They just instantly crawl up their legs, they get caught in their fur and between their paw pads and just keep biting repeatedly,” she told CTV News.

Stockel said many dog walkers have altered their route to avoid the wooded area where the ants are falling off of tree branches.

“If they fall off a tree onto your shirt they will just keep biting you. And it stings. You’ll get welts,” she said.

The Richmond park is one of 23 across B.C. that is experiencing a problem with the tiny red-brown menaces, which are just four millimetres long.

Virtually every municipality in Metro Vancouver has experienced these ants in the past two years, and the problem is particularly bad in Richmond, Burnaby, North Vancouver and Vancouver. The iconic VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver have even erected a sign warning visitors to the problem.

Grenz says eradicating the ants is very difficult and labour-intensive because the problem is a moving target: ants hitch a ride to new locations during soil remediation projects, including land development.

She’d like to see a provincial eradication plan, as well as soil remediation legislation that deals specifically with invasive plants and pests.

“The ants love to be in the places we love to be -- our backyards, community gardens, parks,” Grenz said. “The major challenge is that there’s no silver bullet.”

Metro Vancouver has released a list of tips for people to keep safe if they encounter fire ants:

  • Do not move ants, plants, soil and debris material from infested areas
  • Avoid remaining stationary in infested area
  • European fire ants can be aggressive in defending their territory. If nests are disturbed the ants may swarm and deliver painful stings
  • Infants, children and pets may be more affected by stings
  • If experiencing a stronger reaction than minor swelling, redness, discomfort and itching call HealthLinkBC at 811 for symptom advice. An extreme allergic anaphylactic reaction can be life-threatening and requires emergency care.

For information call 604-276-4316