Do we have fire ants in our area? — Carolyn from Hamptonburgh

Do we have fire ants in our area? — Carolyn from Hamptonburgh

The "true" fire ants (Solenopsis species) are found in the Southern U.S. and Latin America. In our area the European fire ant (Myrmica rubra) has the potential to be an invasive insect in much of the Northeastern U.S. They are distantly related to the "true" fire ants and are a nuisance to people and a threat to the environment. They readily sting humans, pets and livestock when defending their territory. As they move into new areas, they may displace the native ant species that may not be able to defend their food and nesting resources against them.

The European fire ant was first found in Massachusetts in 1902 and has now been found in other areas of the Northeast, including New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island and the east coast of Canada. It lives in decaying logs, soil, under rocks and debris and even in thick clumps of grass.

European fire ants are spreading in coastal areas and are often associated with moist areas away from the coast. Their nests vary in size from a few hundred to 10,000 workers and have multiple queens that lay eggs. They can be transported accidentally via nursery stock, potted plants, mulch and soil. Small groups can also move away from the colonies to produce another colony nearby, thereby gradually spreading outward.

A broad-scale survey of ants is under way through the Northeastern Integrated Pest Management Center to determine the extent which the European fire ant has become established across the Northeast. If you think you have seen this ant, please contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office for instructions on submitting a sample for identification.

I received an Allamanda plant as a gift, how do I take care of it? — Gert from Warwick

Allamanda is a tropical plant native to Brazil. In our area it would need to be treated as an annual outside or a houseplant that can go outside for the summer and be brought back inside before danger of frost in the fall. It has 3-inch yellow trumpet-shaped flowers and leathery dark green leaves. Allamanda can reach a height of 5-10 feet and makes a very showy plant for containers.

It prefers a sunny location with average household temperatures, preferably never less than 55 F. It also enjoys humidity of around 50 percent or more. Keep the soil evenly moist and provide biweekly feedings from April to September. Withhold fertilizer and keep the soil on the dry side through fall and winter. Prune the stems back in spring to keep the plant at a more compact size.

Need help?

For answers to your gardening questions, call your local Master Gardener Volunteer Helpline:

Orange County, 1 Ashley Ave., Middletown. Calls are answered "live" by master gardeners 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, April-October. All other times, leave a message at 343-0664. Sullivan County, 69 Ferndale-Loomis Road, Liberty. Calls are answered 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 292-6180. Ulster County, 10 Westbrook Lane, Kingston. Calls are answered 9 a.m.-noon Monday, Wednesday and Friday, March-October, 9 a.m.-noon Fridays only, November-February; otherwise, leave a message, 340-3478.

Master gardeners are also available in the Cooperative Extension offices for soil testing and plant and insect identification. The cost is $5 for plant and insect identification and $3 for a soil pH test.

"The ABC's of Gardening" is submitted by the master gardeners of the Cornell Cooperative Extensions of Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties, on a rotating basis, in response to questions from callers to the Master Gardener Volunteer Helpline. Debbie Lester is the community horticulture educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Orange County.

Coming up

The annual Master Gardener Plant Sale will be held 9 a.m.-11 a.m. June 2 at the Orange County Fairgrounds 4H Memorial Building in the Town of Wallkill. For more information, call the Garden Helpline at 343-0664.