The tiny but devastating threat
Fire ant venom is potent, especially to human skin. Swarming their victims, fire ant stings can lead to anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction that has resulted in 85 deaths in the US alone.
They inflict serious injury on wildlife and cattle, and are deadly to young, weak and sick creatures. Their nests have been found beneath buildings, pathways and roads. Once they’ve taken over an outdoor area like a sporting field, recreational activities there come to a standstill.
In the US the impacts of fire ants have been costed at $7 billion a year. In Queensland, ground zero of the Aussie infestation so far, the damage bill if we do nothing, has been put at $45 billion over 30 years. For such a small invader, fire ants have significant economic, health and environmental impacts.
State and federal governments have spent more than $320 million trying to stamp put our infestations and eradication is close to complete at Gladstone in Queensland, and Port Botany, but the large infestation between Brisbane and the NSW border remains a major headache for authorities, and may prove more difficult to control if it spreads deeper into the Brisbane hinterlands and northern NSW.
A recent review of the program concluded that eradication remains technically feasible though what’s lacking is a commitment from all state and federal governments to fund the resources needed to get on with the job.
“Successful eradication requires a 10 year funding commitment from state and federal governments of $32 million per year to eradication fire ants in Australia using new technologies including aerial baiting with drones, helicopter heat detection, ground crews and trained detection dogs,” Andrew Cox said.
“Prevention through strong biosecurity protections at our country’s entry points is the quickest, cheapest way to stop dangerous new invasive species from entering Australia. Once they’re here, they must be dealt with quickly and with the full force of state and federal authorities.”
At its next meeting in May 2017, the Agriculture Minister's Forum will consider an enhanced 10 year $380 million red imported fire ant eradication plan.
Pustules which develop when someone is swarmed by fire ants - they attack in unison. Photo: Murray S. Blum, The University of Georgia