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  • Writer's pictureBruce Giddings

Fire Ants March On

Red imported fire ants continue their march into Moreton Bay and beyond, with a new infestation in Burpengary and the Gold Coast recently making the TV, print and online news.

While the discovery of the stinging pest outside the established fire-ant zone was portrayed in the media as noteworthy, the story quickly sank without a trace. But it appears the invaders are getting the upper hand.

The red-stinging fire ants are native to South America and first arrived in Port Botany in Sydney, and Gladstone, over twenty years ago.

While these original ant colonies have been eradicated, the pests have moved on to a sizable patch of land, including Brisbane and surrounds, a total of 450,000 hectares. The incursion continues to expand despite the efforts of the jointly Federal and State funded National Fire Ant Eradication Program.

While the invasion of aggressive stinging ants is almost invisible to the wider public, it is a potential hazard to our backyards and highly prized outdoor lifestyle whilst looming as a multi-billion dollar threat to Australia's agricultural industries.

The danger has been long acknowledged by State and Federal Governments, who have been aware of the threat since 2001. A meeting of Australia's agriculture ministers in June this year agreed to merely "continue working on a new proposal" to deal with fire ants.

Instead of a funding boost sought by the Invasive Species Council, Federal Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt indicated there would be a funding reduction this year.

The Invasive Species Council (ISC) expressed their disbelief that governments seem to have stalled in their efforts to eradicate the stinging pests.

According to Mr Reece Pianta, spokesperson for the ISC, the $60 million announced is, in fact, less than two-thirds of the $94 million spent on eradication efforts last year.

"We are already seeing fire ants breach containment lines in Queensland, and today's failure almost guarantees that fire ants will cross the Tweed River into New South Wales and spread west through the Murray Darling Basin,” said Mr Pianta.

According to the ISC, approximately $330 million has been spent so far in trying to stop the ants. Mr Pianta said that the review recommended sweeping changes to the fire ant eradication program, which would see a doubling or tripling of the current investment, which would still be far cheaper than the cost of living with the pest.

A review of eradication efforts completed in 2021 contains modelling that predicts a cost of up to $2 billion to the economy each year if the stinging ants are not stopped.

"The time for fire ant half measures is over. We can't afford to live with fire ants,” said Mr Pianta.

"A fire ant invasion will be much worse than the cane toad. They will devastate our native wildlife and cause billions of dollars in lost agricultural production yearly.”

Fire ants swarm aggressively and inflict a sting that can itch and burn for an hour. In rare cases, people have died from allergic reactions. The pests can be a significant threat to agriculture and have caused land to become unproductive in the USA, where they are prolific.

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