Researchers are sounding the alarm after a colony of red fire ants has been found in Europe for the first time, according to a new study.

The red fire ant, whose scientific name is Solenopsis Invicta, is native to South America but has spread throughout other parts of the world, including the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, China, and Australia over the past century. 

The insects are said to be very aggressive when disturbed and have a painful sting, which can irritate the skin and can cause allergic reactions. The ants can also damage crops and local ecosystems.

Researchers said they had identified 88 red fire ant nests spread over five hectares near Syracuse, a city in Sicily, Italy.

Mattia Menchetti, a researcher at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Spain, said: “S.Invicta is one of worst Invasive species. It can spread alarms quickly.”

He added: “Finding this species in Italy was a big surprise, but we knew this day would come.”

So far, the red fire ants have been spotted in Spain, Finland, and the Netherlands. However, a colony had never been confirmed before this study.

The colonies were found in the suburban area of Syracuse, however, it was unclear how or when the fire ants arrived. 

Researchers said that they believe the insects must have arrived at a transit point with lots of human activity, such as the city’s ports.

They also suggested that wind could have transported flying queen ants from northwest Syracuse, where the commercial port is located. 

David Smith, of Buglife, told the Guardian: “It’s an open door for non-native species that are soil-dwellers. There’s widespread concern about these non-native invasive ant species of which this is one of a handful which are on the cusp of making it into Europe.

“We can do something to stop these arriving but once an invasive ant species is here it’s going to be very hard to eradicate. Ants are notorious for being able to spread quickly.”

The ants could soon spread all over Europe, researchers say. Seven percent of the continent, which includes large cities such as Barcelona, London, and Paris, has a climate suitable for the species. 

The red fire ants are said to damage crops and can infest electrical equipment, including cars and computers