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Daunting task faces fire ant fighters
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 Service.

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 about it.

"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," he said.

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 them away.

"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 Service.

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 Scientist.

"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 of people.

"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 home.

"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.


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