Recent discoveries of nests in the NSW Northern Rivers region, including , as well as last year’s detection of a fire-ant queen on a freight pallet in Melbourne, highlight the increasing national threat posed by south-east Queensland’s outbreak.
The Invasive Species Council said the venomous ants were becoming increasingly difficult to contain and time was running out to eradicate them in Queensland, where they were first spotted in 2001.
The federal government is co-ordinating a national fire-ant eradication program, with plans for a near- to reduce the threat to the rest of the country. But Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are yet to commit their share of the funds.
Invasive Species Council expert Reece Pianta said while the eradication program was welcome, it was finalised more than 12 months ago – before the growth potential of the Queensland outbreak was realised – and beefed-up controls were needed before fire ants gained a foothold outside the state.
“We’re at a crisis point on fire ants. We’re really running out of time to deal with them,” Pianta said.
“It’s evident from the containment breaches and the spread into NSW that we are nearing a point where fire ants could be getting out of control.
“It’s great that additional resources have been put in place. But those decisions were made before we had outbreaks in NSW, and before it became clear that there is a fire-ant density problem in South East Queensland.”
A fire-ant bite typically causes a burning sensation that lasts up to an hour and, in some cases, a fatal anaphylactic shock.
The eradication program investigates public reports of potential sightings and deploys field workers to kill fire-ant colonies with insecticide.
Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt, who is responsible for biosecurity, said state and federal governments were committed to removing the pest from Australia.
“The funding will see the 2023-27 response plan, worth a total of $592.8 million, deliver stronger containment and more aggressive treatment, demanding a more rapid scale-up of effort across a broader operational area and eventual eradication,” Watt said.
An emergency biosecurity order is in place at Wardell, near Ballina, after the .
The ants were transported to Ballina in landscape materials from Queensland, highlighting the potential for them to travel long distances by hitching a ride when organic materials such as sugar cane mulch are trucked from an infested area.
Six nests in the NSW Northern Rivers region in November.
A fire-ant queen found at a north Melbourne nursery in February last year is also thought to have been in a shipment of landscape materials from Queensland. A queen ant can potentially start a new colony on its own.
The Victorian government’s biosecurity officials treated the materials with insecticide and no further fire-ant activity has been detected.
There have been seven instances of fire ants entering Australia since they were first detected in Brisbane in 2001. Typically, ants are transported to Australia in organic materials on cargo ships.
Fire ants, which are native to South America, were introduced to the US state of Alabama in the 1930s. They have since spread across America’s South, where more than 80 deaths have been recorded.
The insects are capable of establishing colonies in 99 per cent of mainland Australia. As well as being carried in freight across borders, a nationwide infestation is feared if large enough numbers of ants enter river systems. A showed thousands of ants as they floated in floodwaters around the Gold Coast.
How to spot fire ants
Fire ants are copper brown with a darker abdomen. They are relatively small and measure 2 to 6 millimetres, with a variety of sizes in each nest.
Their nests are usually found in open areas such as lawns, garden beds, near water sources and along roads, and can appear as mounds or flat patches of loose soil with no obvious entry and exit holes.
Their sting can cause a painful, burning and itching sensation that can last for an hour. It can result in blisters and pustules, which should not be burst because they can become infected.
In extremely rare cases, fire-ant stings can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.
While most people don’t need medical treatment for stings, the national eradication program advises people to seek immediate help if there are concerns.
A severe reaction may occur if a sting victim has a history of allergic reactions to insects or experiences flushing, hives, swelling of the face, eyes or throat, chest pains, nausea, severe sweating, breathing difficulty or faintness.
Fire ants also bite pets. If this occurs, owners are advised to wear gloves to remove any ants from their pet and bath them to provide some relief. Hosing the pet can make the ants more aggressive. Advice should be sought from vets if the animal is in pain or is vomiting, lethargic or has trouble breathing.
Suspected fire-ant sightings can be reported via phone in Victoria on 1800 084 881, in NSW on 1800 680 244 and in Queensland on 13 25 23. Reports can be made online to the national eradication program at .
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