Beware the evil fire ant

Outdoor pursuits like picnicking, barbecues and hiking could be under threat from fire ants, coming to a garden or sporting field near you.

The fire ant up close. Photo: Alex Wild
The fire ant up close.
Photo: Alex Wild

Seen in Port Botany and more recently at a Queensland school, unless the Australian Government takes drastic action quickly, these tiny ants could fundamentally alter our way of life. In response the Invasive Species Council has brought out a leading US fire ant expert who’s speaking in Sydney on March 22 on the threat.

The expert Dr Robert Puckett, from fire ant hotspot Texas, has been part of the United States’ long fight against fire ants where they’ve been tormenting people in souther United States for decades.

Now the red imported fire ant is in Australia. Its silent invasion has seen them  in Port Botany in south west Sydney and before long, says the Invasive Species Council, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll  be in every corner of our state.

“It is a certainty that fire ants will spread across all areas of Sydney if they’re not eradicated soon,” Andrew Cox, CEO of Invasive Species Council said.

For such a small invader, fire ants
have significant economic,
health and environmental impacts.

“Fire ants cripple agricultural production, disrupt housing developments, threaten lives and destroy infrastructure. For more than a decade Australia’s fire ant eradication program has been underfunded, barely containing fire ant infestations. All the while fire ants have been moving into new territory.”

The tiny but devastating threat

Fire ant venom is potent, especially to human skin. Swarming their victims, fire ant stings can lead to anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction that has resulted in 85 deaths in the US alone.

They wildlife and cattle, inflicting serious injury, and are deadly to young, weak and sick

Secondary infection following red fire ant stings. photo: Texas Department of Agriculture
Secondary infection following
red fire ant stings.
photo: Texas Department of Agriculture

creatures. Their nests have been found beneath buildings, pathways and roads. Once they’ve taken over an outdoor area like a sporting field, recreational activities there come to a standstill.

In the US the impacts of fire ants have been costed at $7 billion a year. In Queensland, ground zero of the Aussie infestation so far, the damage bill if we do nothing, has been put at $45 billion over 30 years.

State and federal governments have spent more than $320 million trying to stamp put our infestations and eradication is close to complete at Gladstone in Queensland, and Port Botany, but the large infestation between Brisbane and the NSW border remains a major headache for authorities, and may prove more difficult to control if it spreads deeper into the Brisbane hinterlands and northern NSW.

A recent review of the program concluded that eradication remains technically feasible though what’s lacking is a commitment from all state and federal governments to fund the resources needed to get on with the job.

“Successful eradication requires a 10 year funding commitment from state and federal

Pustules which develop when someone is swarmed by fire ants - they attack in unison. Photo: Murray S. Blum, The University of Georgia
Pustules which
develop when
someone is
swarmed by fire
ants – they attack
in unison.
Photo: Murray
S. Blum, The
University of
Georgia

governments of $32 million per year to eradication fire ants in Australia using new technologies including aerial baiting with drones, helicopter heat detection, ground crews and trained detection dogs,” Andrew Cox said.

“Prevention through strong biosecurity protections at our country’s entry points is the quickest, cheapest way to stop dangerous new invasive species from entering Australia. Once they’re here, they must be dealt with quickly and with the full force of state and federal authorities.”

At its next meeting in May 2017, the Agriculture Minister’s Forum will consider an enhanced 10 year $380 million red imported fire ant eradication plan.

The lowdown:
Dr Puckett’s address on the fire ant menace is at the New Law Lecture Theatre, 106 New Law Annexe, The University of Sydney, on March 22, starting at 6.30pm. The event is free; register at: bit.ly/fire-ant-tour

Leave a Reply