Fears post-flood construction boom linked to fire ant detection in Wardell, NSW

Community concerns are growing as authorities work to trace the source of the latest imported red fire ant nest found in New South Wales.

A nest was identified in Wardell, south of Ballina, on Friday afternoon after a gardener reported being badly bitten.

It is the second time in less than two months the invasive species has been found south of Queensland border, following the discovery of six nests at South Murwillumbah in late November.

The latest discovery is about 80 kilometres further south.

NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) chief invasive species officer Scott Charlton said the nest at Wardell had been destroyed.

“It’s been treated with … Fipronil injection, and the immediate area around there has been treated with insect growth regulator which is a broader-scale approach,” he said.

“We’ve done initial surveillance of the site to make sure that there are no ants that could impact the community living there, and we’ve secured the site with fencing.

“So it is very safe.”

There have been two recent detections of fire ants in NSW.(Datawrapper)

‘Complex supply chain’

The challenge now is to work out where the ants came from.

The Wardell nest was found in a garden bed at a temporary housing village for flood survivors. 

“The plants and materials were all sourced locally, around the Ballina area,” Mr Charlton said.

“We’ve acted quickly to visit a couple of sites … we’ve deployed the odour-detection dogs to those sites to make sure they’re safe.

“We’re still investigating the very complex supply chain issues associated with multiple products on a site.

“If there is a direct line to Queensland it’s a more simple story, but there are people who buy things from Queensland and sell them on.”

The fire ant nest found at Wardell has been destroyed.(Supplied: NSW DPI)

A 5km biosecurity control order has been put in place around the Wardell site, restricting the movement of materials such as soil, hay, mulch, manure, quarry products, turf, and potted plants.

“The next stage will be the commencement of the 500-metre baiting and surveillance, which is very comprehensive,” Mr Charlton said.

Construction site concerns

But Ballina MP Tamara Smith has called for a major operation to inspect post-flood construction sites across the region.

“Having it in Murwillumbah and now south in Wardell I think tells us that we now need a major biosecurity operation in the region post floods, because there has been so much construction work,” she said.

“What I think they should be doing … is inspecting the hundreds and hundreds of construction sites on our area post-flood to see if this truly is a one-off … which I think is highly unlikely.”

Sue Steel visited the fire ant information hub in Wardell.(ABC North Coast: Bronwyn Herbert)

‘It’s quite frightening’

There has been growing concern in Wardell about the risks posed by the ants.

Local Sue Steel was among those to visit an information hub set up by the DPI.

“What amazed me [was] … I thought they were the size of the old sugar ant, about half an inch or more, and they’re so small,” she said.

“I can’t believe these little teeny things can cause so much drama. It’s quite frightening really.

“My place backs onto a reserve, and you just worry when the kids go out and they’re running up and down and playing if they’re going to be safe.”

Rob Macdonald says the discovery of fire ants “could be devastating” for the region.(Bronwyn Herbert: ABC North Coast)

Robert Macdonald, who operates a turf farm in the area, said he was keen to learn as much as he could about the invasive species.

“It could be devastating for the area if it gets out of hand,” he said.

“I think it’s up to each and every one of us to take it seriously and act accordingly.”   

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