NSW gardener in blistering pain after discovering new outbreak of dangerous fire ants at flood pod village

The accidental discovery of red imported fire ants by a gardener in northern New South Wales has raised concerns about whether the pests were introduced during construction of temporary flood housing, following the flood disaster of 2022.

The gardener was badly bitten and suffered blistering and pain, after disturbing a nest at Wardell, south of Ballina.

The NSW Minister for Agriculture, Tara Moriarty, confirmed incident response teams from the National Fire Ant Eradication Program and NSW DPI teams moved quickly to destroy the nest with liquid insecticide, and a 5-kilometre biosecurity control order has been put in place.

A man applies poison to a fire ant nest in a raised garden bed

A NSW government response team member destroys the fire ant nest at Wardell.(Supplied: NSW DPI)

Pod villages under the spotlight

Jack Gough, director of advocacy at the Invasive Species Council, says the biggest concern is how the fire ants got so far south into NSW.

“This is a really alarming development; 85 kilometres south of the border, so it’s a long way,” he said

“It’s clearly been moved there by humans; it wouldn’t have moved naturally that distance.”

A caucasian man with a large ginger beard

Jack Gough is concerned about how the fire ants arrived at Wardell.(Supplied: Jack Gough)

His biggest fear is that soil containing fire ants was brought into the region by the authority tasked with flood reconstruction, after a series of pod accommodation villages was built in the northern NSW following the 2022 flood disaster.

“We know the most common way fire ants are spread quickly is often through the construction industry, the movement of turf or soil.

“It’s very concerning if the reconstruction authority has led to the movement of fire ants, so we will be asking some really serious questions of the NSW government about what protocols they had in place.

“What checking is going on with all the other temporary accommodation, since those floods to make sure there aren’t other locations that fire ants have been moved?”

A Google Earth photo of the rural village Wardell.

A temporary housing village was constructed at Wardell following the 2022 floods.(Supplied: Google Earth)

Government denies link

Lismore MP Janelle Saffin, who is Parliamentary Secretary for Disaster Recovery, insists it is “overreach” for the Invasive Species Council to suggest the NSW Reconstruction Authority could have spread fire ants.

“When the pod villages were constructed, NSW did not have the threat of fire ants,” she said.

“Now we do, it will make sense for anyone anywhere, whether it be a pod village or any construction site, going forward to have a protocol around where they source construction material, sand and gravel, et cetera.”

a woman wearing glasses

Janelle Saffin says authorities have acted quickly following the detection of fire ants at Wardell.(ABC News: Emma Rennie)

Ms Saffin said the pod villages, including the one at Wardell, were constructed under the previous Coalition government.

“There were no fire ants, so they obviously wouldn’t have had a fire ants protocol when we had no fire ants,” she said.

“It’s not great news  — we don’t want them to spread.

“It was jumped on quickly; the Fire Ant Eradication team are in, and all hands are on deck.”

A fire ant nest in Ipswich

Fire ant nests are mounds, or flattish patches, of soil up to 40 centimetres high.(ABC News: Rachel Riga)

Cane capital under threat

Richmond River Cane Growers’ Association chairman Geoff Pye says the fire ants are a shock for the local cane industry.

“Wardell is the heart of the cane industry in NSW, so there are ramifications if one of these 5-km radius bans are put in,” he said.

“If this nest had been found while we were harvesting it could have had big implications for our cane cutting and our transport to the mill.”

Farmer learning against a fibreglass pool with 3m high cane surrounding them

Geoff Pye says fire ants are a serious threat to the cane industry.(ABC North Coast: Emma Rennie)

Mr Pye believes the discovery is a wake-up call for growers.

“I think we’ve been caught by surprise that they’ve come this far south, so we’ll be renewing calls to remain vigilant,” he said.

NSW Farmers president Xavier Martin says the latest discovery reveals a significant breach of the state’s biosecurity controls.

The association is calling on government to immediately ramp up control and eradication efforts.

“NSW Farmers has called for greater focus on biosecurity for many years, but we’ve seen a failure at our borders and with the Queensland government failing to take this problem seriously,” Mr Martin said. 

The Northern Rivers community is being encouraged to be vigilant and report any sightings of fire ants.

“It’s very serious and will transform our way of life if fire ants spread; kids can’t walk into their backyard or local parks in bare feet,” Mr Gough said.

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