Australia drops the ball on fire ant invasion

Australia was invaded by fire ants in the late 1990s, but not discovered until 2001. They had snuck into the Port of Brisbane and by that time had spread to south-west suburbs between Brisbane and Ipswich. Ever since then there has been an effort to eliminate Solenopsis invicta, also known as the Red imported fire ant (RIFA).

Deemed the Most successful creature that has ever lived in an instructive American video, according to the Invasive Species Council:

    ‘Fire ants are one of the world’s worst super pests and, if they are allowed to spread across the continent, their impact will be greater than cane toads, rabbits, feral cats and foxes combined.

On July 13 this year the Commonwealth and State Agricultural Ministers Meeting agreed to a joint-funded National Fire Ant Eradication Program requiring $592 million for joint-funded new response plan over 2023 – 2027 as the first phase in a revamped eradication program targeting complete eradication in 2032. In 2023/24 $133 million was needed. However, so far only Qld and NSW have honoured the commitment, as revealed in the Invasive Species Council’s media release Leaked government documents reveal fire ant funding failure that puts eradication plans at risk.

This image shows the containment and eradication work as originally planned for 2023-24:

As the Queensland minister said on 25 July the New response plan has fire ants surrounded. If nothing had been done since 2001, natural spread alone would have seen the fire ant infesting “approximately 100 million hectares in an arc of country from Bowen in the north, west to Longreach and south to Canberra.”

That would be on the way to infesting most of the country:

Unfortunately now work will only be undertaken along the southern edge of the infected area, less than half the work in the agreed plan:

Already the ant has now broken out:

    100 new fire ant nests have been detected on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) and a dozen Morayfield, north of Brisbane – areas where eradication is not occurring in 2023/24 due to underfunding. New nests have also been found this week at Varsity Lakes on the southern Gold Coast.

That was 13 September, 2023.

Already the ant is just a queen’s flight away from the NSW border, and is not far from the headwaters of the Murray-Darling system. We should know that RIFA is a specialist at floating downstream in floods, forming a raft with the bodies of the workers that can float for months before finding a new home.

RIFA is an omnivore, consuming plants and animals. A nest may contain multiple queens and up to 400,000 workers. When disturbed the workers will attack in mass, and have been known to kill quite large animals, attacking the lips, eyes and other orifices. Humans can require medical attention or even die from anaphylactic shock. I understand the 95% of amphibians would be wiped out. It even kills ground bacteria and fungi.

Fire ants are attracted to electrical fields and tend to short out electrical components of infrastucture. They are capable of undermining driveways and roads, and can undermine or damage pipes and other infrastructure.

When a queen establishes a new nest she may only fly metres, resulting in extremely high densities of up to 2600 mounds per hectare, rendering parks or playing fields unusable.

Wikipedia has a useful section on the ant’s relationship to humans.

Wikipedia has a section on the ant’s relationship to humans.

According to the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland in Fire ants threaten wildlife and ecosystems in Australia:

    If left unchecked, fire ants will have severe ecological impacts because they reach extremely high densities. An assessment of their likely impact on 123 animals in southeast Queensland predicted population declines in about 45% of birds, 38% of mammals, 69% of reptiles and 95% of frogs. These reductions could result in possible extinctions.

In a budget the funds required in this case are pretty much a rounding error. Letting them run free to the west and north for a year is irrational and counterproductive.

Our problem now is that interrupted funding boosts RIFA’s onward march. Effectively those responsible in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Commonwealth are not simply kicking the can down the road. They have made a decision in favour of having the Red Imported Fire Ant as a permanent feature of Australia’s ecology.

Related links

National Fire Ant Eradication Program

Queensland Government Fire ants site

Commonwealth Government site Red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta)

SBS explainer – Fire ants spreading across Australia could have deadly consequences. Here’s why

While Australia has not yet reported a fire-ant-related death, the Invasive Species Council note there have been 85 reported deaths in the United States from anaphylactic shock.

    Symptoms of anaphylactic shock include skin reactions such as hives, constriction of the airways and difficulty breathing, low blood pressure and dizziness and fainting.

Anaphylactic shock can effect up to three per cent of the population.

This Invasive Species Council case study (2017) has value, as has a 2016 review article Red Imported Fire Ant in Australia: What if we lose the war?.

The American documentary Fire Ants – Most successful creature that has ever lived is highly recommended. It tells of how the the ant has invaded 13 states in the last 80 years. From 1957 to 1975 an eradication program was undertaken which massively reduced all manner of species including insects and birds, but the fire ant won and was the fastest to recover.

They report that the fire ant is now in at least 11 countries, including the Caribbean, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and China.

Apparently in Argentina five flies attack fire ants and nothing else. The ‘forward fly’ dive bombs them, injecting an egg inside the ant, which hatches and eats the ant from inside. Estimates suggest that this would reduce the population to 10 to 20% of what is now the case in the USA, which must have the authorities thinking, and may suggest a plan B for us if we have to live with the pest.

One thought on “Australia drops the ball on fire ant invasion”

  1. I would like everyone to tell everyone about this issue, especially decisionmakers in state and the federal government.

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