Daunting task faces fire ant
Reporter: Kirsten Aiken
First Published: 15/09/01
This week primary industry officers
in Brisbane, Australia - step up the war against the solenopsis invicta
- commonly referred to as the red imported fire ant.
The name invicta proves just how tough and time
consuming a job it will be. Invicta means "invincible" and so
far the fireant has yet to be eradicated from anywhere in the world.
"It's been a number of years since I've seen
an infestation that bad where I'm from. It was really quite impressive
and discouraging to see that many fireants in someplace this far away
from their origin," Dr Charles Barr, Texas Agricultural Extension
Hardly words of encouragement given Dr Barr was
visiting Brisbane from Texas where eradication is just a dream and newspaper
headlines show the locals are learning, sometimes painfully, how to live
with fire ants.
"In agriculture the estimate is that the impact
of fireants is $90 million U.S annually. In our metroplex areas, Dallas,
Houston, San Antonia, Austin, Fort Worth, the estimate is $600 million
annually as an impact cost and $300 million of that is the amount of money
people are buying, people are using to buy products to try to manage the
problem, and that's a huge cost," said Professor Bart Drees, Texas
Agricultural Extension Service.
That's why it's so important primary industry officers
use this tiny window of opportunity to wipe out the pest in Brisbane.
If they fail, there's no doubt what has happened in the United States
will happen here.
"I would say that left uncontrolled certainly
in a couple of years we'd get fire ants into the eastern parts of the
lockyer valley. Our population modelling suggests inside 30 years most
of arable Australia would have fire ants in it because these things hitch
rides on soil products, plant pots, hay, agricultural produce and of course
that moves them a lot faster than natural flight would," said Dr
Cas Vanderwoude, Principal Scientist.
In the months following the initial detection of
the fire ant in Brisbane, scientists have done all they can to learn more
"We've conducted two major modelling studies.
One is looking at where in Australia fire ants might like to live. What
we've found from that study, and that was done by the CSIRO using a climatics
approach, what we've found from that is basically where we like to live
- fire ants like to live. So in areas that receive more than 250 millimetres
of rainfall a year, that are reasonably warm, although they're not immune
- they don't have a problem with cold temperatures at all, and that takes
in the coastal belt of most of Australia, Tasmania as well, and certainly
the tropics of the northern territory and the north-west of Western Australia,"
That means ... Agricultural operations of all types
are at risk from fire ants.
For instance ...
"Fire ants in pecan orchards are as much a
nuisance as anything. During harvest when you shake the trees you get
a lot of fire ants, probably more than you do pecans, so there's obviously
a danger factor there for the workers. During the growing season there
are big problems with irrigation systems, they clog up the piping, they
eat through," Dr Charles Barr, Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
Believe it or not, the fire ant does have some
beneficial aspects like keeping ticks away from cattle.
But even cattle producers in the states are wishing
"Cattle ranchers they actually hate fire ants
more than anything because cattle are a very hands on operation and fire
ants affect anything you do with your hands outdoors. They can kill calves
as soon as they're born," Dr Charles Barr, Texas Agricultural Extension
And that's what the scientists say will harm Australian
agriculture the most. The fact many farm workers aren't likely to want
to put themselves in harm's way.
"I imagine if i were working in a harvesting
situation and I had a choice of working in a paddock where I was being
stung repeatedly by fire ants and another paddock where there weren't
fire ants, I know I'd much rather work in a paddock free of fire ants
and I'd be more likely to accept a lower price for my work. So I guess
one problem that could be faced is the problem of getting people to hand
harvest in a cropping situation where fire ants existed due to the hazardous
nature of that sort of work," said Dr Cas Vanderwoude, Principal
"It's very labour intensive. In the agricultural
circumstance, treatment is easily done through tractor powered implements
or aerial application but the area we're talking about which is over 30
thousand hectares, there's over 100-thousand residents, and the ohnly
way to apply bait in those areas is really on foot. At the same time the
only way we can detect the ant at the moment for the surveillance phase
is by actually using the mark one eyeball and looking rather than using
any flash technology. So we need teams of people who do emu parades across
the land. So we're talking about in total 200 people on the ground for
treatment and 200 people on the ground for surveillance," said Keith
Mccubbin, Fire Ant Control Centre Director
While of course the treatment process itself is
absolutely critical to the eradication of the fire ant. There is another
element to the strategy which can't be overlooked.
And that is getting the public on side. That's
why there have been concerted efforts to educate mums, dads and the kids
about the danger of the fire ant.
Not just that it has a nasty sting, but that its
presence threatens great Aussie staples like the BBQ and sport as well
as outdoors work.
This information booth at the recent Brisbane show
delivered important details about how to identify the fire ant to thousands
"It's more than just raising awareness, the
reality is getting public support behind us. Because if we can't get the
public to support us, we won't be able to get access to the backyards
to do the surveillance to do the treatment. The reality is if we don't
succeed it will become a public or community problem," Keith Mccubbin,
Fire Ant Control Centre Director.
"It's certainly a good response to date. Of
course the people we've been dealing with so far who are visibly infested
and really know what the problem is would probably have to work a little
bit harder to get the support of the people who don't see that they're
infested but are in the treatment zone."
Here's hoping the best efforts of our primary industry
officers means the fire ant doesn't get a real chance to call Australia
"If the infestation is where we think it is
I think it's certainly achieveable. It hasn't been done successfully elsewhere
but I think we have a good plan, a good team, with the cooperation of
the community, I think we have a good chance at this, yes," said
Dr Cas Vanderwoude, Principal Scientist.