Fire ants: Global 'super-pest' threatens Aussie cities

No other country has managed to eradicate fire ants, but Australia thinks it can.

Australia’s largest cities could soon be waving goodbye to beloved traditions like picnics and barbecues if feral hoards of biting invasive insects continue to march across the country.

Thousands of red fire ant nests have been detected over the past 12 months across Queensland, with four found to have breached a biosecurity zone set up to stop them.

The ants use pheromones to communicate and work together to attack humans, domestic pets and wildlife. While one bite produces a relatively mild needle-like sting, swarms can inflict hundreds or even thousands of bites that can result in anaphylactic shock.

Inset - fire ant stings. Background - a group of people in a Melbourne park having a picnic.
Fire ant swarms can inflict thousands of bites, making picnics in infestation zones impossible. Source: Getty/Murray S Bloom, University of Georgia via Forestry Images

Efforts to stop their spread are believed to have been successful in Fremantle, but the Queensland outbreak continues to spread and it could reach Sydney by 2035. The Invasive Species Council (ISC) believes Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart shouldn’t rest easy because people can inadvertently spread them huge distances.

Window closing to stop fire ant spread

No other country that’s been invaded by fire ants has succeeded in containing them. In 2020, Yahoo News Australia spoke to those leading the charge to stop their spread, which you can see in the video below.

On Tuesday, Queensland’s peak body representing rural producers warned the “window of opportunity to eradicate fire ants was now closing”. AgForce’s CEO Michael Guerin said it “beggars belief” that state and federal governments sat on a report for two years that warned an “urgent change of strategy” was needed to address the problem.

“We need governments to make up for lost time and prioritise the reforms recommended in the outdated report before it’s too late,” Mr Guerin said.

He’s referring to the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program Strategic Review which was compiled in August 2021, but only released in June this year, following campaigning by the ISC. That’s despite the authors using the word “urgent” 18 times in the 96-page report and referring to them as a global “super-pest”.

The report called for stronger containment, more aggressive suppression, and a goal of eradication. It called for millions in extra funding to stop the ants becoming a $2 billion-a-year problem.

Left - a map showing where the ants could travel to in Australia. Right - a swarm of ants on a blade of grass.
There are renewed warnings that fire ants could soon threaten Australia’s major cities if they are not eradicated. Source: Alex Wild/stevenw12339

You can read more on introduced species here:

The ISC’s Reece Pianta said historical efforts to combat the ants have been reactionary and relied on “luck” in terms of finding their nests. “Our big concern is that’s not a long-term strategy,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

While he believes the plans to eradicate existing infestations are working, he wants to see them scaled up dramatically to meet the size of the challenge. Otherwise, it’s going to be everyday Aussies who pay the price.

“One of the biggest impacts financially would be on individual households. They would be up for the cost of treating, containing and eliminating fire ants when they get into a backyard,” he said.

In infestation zones it is impossible to:

  • Barbecues and picnics.

  • Play with kids or animals.

Hidden costs from infestation include damage to:

  • Electricity and water connections to houses.

  • Footpath and road infrastructure.

The cost to human and wildlife health is also expected to be immense. “It is expected that if fire ants become prevalent in Australia, they would result in hundreds of thousands of additional medical presentations every year,” Mr Pianta said.

“One area that’s hard to model is the impact they’ll have on Australian wildlife and natural habitats. It’ll be dramatic though. We know that from the experience in the southern United States.”

A Queensland government shows the spread of fire ants and biosecurity exclusion zones in May 2023.
A Queensland government shows the spread of fire ants and biosecurity exclusion zones in May 2023. Source: Fire Ant Eradication Program

Fire Ant Program responds to calls for urgent action

Responding to questions from Yahoo News Australia, a spokesperson for the National Fire Ant Eradication Program issued a statement.

It noted the achievements of the program which is funded by all states, territories and the federal government.

“Without our program, fire ants would now infest approximately 100 million hectares in an arc of the country from Bowen in the north, west to Longreach and south to Canberra,” it said. “The shared investment to date has avoided billions of dollars in public health, infrastructure, agricultural, environmental and social amenity impacts.”

Asked for a timeline on when the new program would be implemented, it said a new plan would be presented to the country’s agriculture ministers “shortly”.

“In the meantime, we are continuing to deliver the world’s most successful fire ant eradication program, including critical work preparing to uplift the program to eradicate fire ants,” it said.

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