Fire ants vary in size but are distinct in their coppery-brown colour. (Supplied: Qld Department of Agriculture and Fisheries)
Fire ants are spreading into new areas across south-east Queensland according to a Biosecurity Queensland insider who says the war to eradicate the potential killers is all but lost.
- In rare cases fire ant stings can kill, by causing an anaphylactic reaction
- A biosecurity insider says they’ve now been found past containment lines in Gatton, west of Brisbane
- Thousands of potential sightings of the ants are taking weeks for the department to confirm
Jaimie Varcoe, who has had contracts for the past two years identifying, baiting and surveilling the ants, criticised middle management in the Agriculture Department for taking too long to respond to potential sightings.
There are currently up to 13,000 reports of sightings awaiting confirmation, with a further wait for the Department to treat affected areas.
“It just seems more of a gravy train than anything else,” Mr Varcoe said of the fire ant eradication program.
“It’s couched as an eradication program — there is no way it is an eradication program — this is not even a containment program.”
The ant’s sting can cause death from anaphylactic shock in rare cases. (Supplied: Department of Agriculture)
It is a claim strenuously denied by Graeme Dudgeon, the new general manager of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.
Since first being discovered in Brisbane in 2001, the invasive species has spread south to the Scenic Rim and the Gold Coast.
Mr Varcoe said the pest had now moved beyond detection zones, threatening some of the best cropping land in the state at Gatton, west of Brisbane.
He said the ants, which can kill calves and small wildlife, had the potential to damage crops and hinder harvesting.
Fire ants were first detected in Brisbane in 2001, but have since spread to neighbouring council areas. (Supplied: Qld Department of Agriculture and Fisheries)
“That must put a chill through those guys, up there [at Gatton],” Mr Varcoe said.
“If the fire ants get in there, with the amount of irrigation … that goes on, they will not stop them … not under the present program.”
The ABC went to several locations inside the biosecurity containment zone with Mr Varcoe earlier this week.
Fire ant nests at Ripley in Ipswich, that Mr Varcoe (right) reported to the department six weeks ago. (ABC News: Leonie Mellor)
Several nests were found in the new Everleigh housing estate in Logan, including at a children’s playground.
More nests were found at the Ecco Ripley estate, with a sign placed at the local playground warning parents of the dangers.
Down the road more nests were found that Mr Varcoe said he had reported six weeks ago — yet no action had been taken.
“I think it’s a joke — I mean quite frankly,” he said.
Eradication program head Mr Dudgeon said when reports indicated a risk to people and children, the Department acted immediately.
He conceded residents in the middle of the 500,000 hectare area around Ipswich and Ripley would likely be seeing an increase in fire ants because they were being contained for the moment.
Furthermore, he said fire ants were attracted to new developments.
He doesn’t dispute that there are thousands of reports awaiting confirmation.
But he said the ants build up their nests during the winter, making them more visible, prompting more reports.
A fire ant nest on a property at Willowbank in Ipswich in November 2018. (ABC News: Rachel Riga)
“There have been times for instance earlier this calendar year when there were almost no nests to treat, that’s because people weren’t seeing them, they are there.”
‘Losing the war’
Farmer Jim Willmott, who has worked in several biosecurity roles with local and the New South Wales governments over the past decade, said the problem was no longer about containment — it was asset management.
He criticised the level of urgency from the program.
“We are losing the war,” Mr Willmott said.
“How can we can say we’ve even contained it when it’s moving past the western front?
Children who get bitten by fire ants can suffer potentially deadly anaphylactic shock. (ABC News: Leonie Mellor)
“It’s too late spraying and putting pellets out across the landscape when you’ve got 500,000 hectares infested with fire ants — this is totally out of control.”
Although only in the job for four months, Mr Dudgeon vehemently disputes the allegations the Department was losing the fight.
He said the program was the largest of its type in the world and focused on eradication in the west, containment to the north and south, and compression in the middle.
“We have the best scientific minds in the world in relation to fire ant knowledge telling us yes we can still eradicate them,” Mr Dudgeon said.
Mr Dudgeon vehemently disputes the allegations the department was losing the fight against fire ants. (ABC News: Leonie Mellor)
“The people out in the west, they’ll see us flying helicopters, they’ll see us have teams on the ground — we’ve had multiple bait treatments in that area over the last two years.
“They’re telling us that it’s working, so they’re seeing far fewer ant nests — some people aren’t seeing them at all anymore.”
Mr Willmott and Mr Varcoe also criticised how funding had been spent, including the use of a helicopter with thermal imagery to identify nests.
They called for an independent organisation to run the program.
Mr Willmott and Mr Varcoe want the fire ant eradication program to be run independently. (ABC News: Leonie Mellor)
“They spent a lot of money on [the helicopter]. It went around finding warm rocks and cowpats,” Mr Varcoe said.
The Department acknowledged the last generation helicopter had confused fire ant nests with the heat from cow manure, but said a new helicopter will join its force next month, is expected to have better accuracy thanks to artificial intelligence.
A national taskforce was established in 2017 with a $410 million budget and a 10-year plan to eradicate the pests.
Fire ants are treated through baiting that is spread across properties, and relies on the ants to take it back to the nest, rendering the queen ant sterilised.
Nests can also be directly injected with insecticide.
Stings from the ants are painful, the alkaloid venom causes small blisters and, in some people it may cause an anaphylactic reaction that is sometimes fatal.