Owners and operators of outdoor facilities have been warned of the growing health and safety risk posed by red fire ants, after the Federal Senate led an inquiry into the spread of the invasive pest.

The CEO of Sundew Solutions, a leading pest management researcher and developer, David Priddy, said that the spread of the highly aggressive, stinging pest from Queensland southwards highlights the need for proactive measures to contain the issue and protect users of the recreational assets of private and public facilities, including municipal, councils, State and Federal facilities, extending from playgrounds and sports fields to camping and picnic areas, and visitor hotspots.

Fire ants are highly mobile pests whose nests of up to 500,000 individuals can harm people, pets, flora and fauna.

“National allergy bodies told the Senate Inquiry into Red Imported Fire ants (RIFA) that 174,000 people could develop severe allergic reactions to the insect’s bite if this highly aggressive pest becomes endemic in Australia. Its spread also threatens pets, playgrounds, sportsgrounds, caravan and camping grounds and native flora and fauna, to the point of extinction if it gets sufficient foothold nationally,” Mr Priddy said.

Mr Priddy has campaigned for more effective control measures to prevent the spread of the highly mobile pest since it was first detected in Queensland 20 years ago and is now spreading south.

“If left unchecked, they are capable of forming colonies in most of mainland Australia and most of Tasmania.

Mr Priddy made submissions to the inquiry about his Australian-developed ANTagonistPRO Rapid Response Large Area fire ant treatment and SASPRO individual nest treatment granules, as it has been used successfully by Australian professional pest controllers for more many years.

“Two common methods of treating fire ant infestations are direct nest injection with pesticide and the application of toxicant baits. These methods are reactive, deployed when an infestation is detected. Given the extensive scale of fire ant infestations in southeast Queensland, it is crucial to employ proactive measures to protect unaffected areas from infestation or reinfestation. These measures must withstand adverse weather conditions and remain effective over time to prevent the spread of fire ants. This proactive approach is essential to maintaining vigilance and safeguarding regions by these invasive pests.”

Infestations can take hold anywhere, from camping grounds to sports fields.

Mr priddy said that municipal councils and State, Federal, and private operators of visitor facilities should have a proactive plan in place to prevent the spread of the pest to their facilities, and also be equipped to deal with nests immediately when any are detected.

“The potential impact of fire ants needs to be clearly understood by anyone who has a duty of care to visitors to their facilities – this is a community-wide issue that needs action to prevent Australia ending up like the US, where the action taken was too little, too late.”

In the United States, fire ants currently infest more than 320 million acres (nearly 130 million hectares) in 13 southern tier states and Puerto Rico, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS). This invasive ant is estimated to be responsible for more than $US6 billion ($A9 billion) annually in damage repair, medical care, and control costs, according to the USDA ARS.

Mr Priddy said that operators of fleets of service vehicles and RV vehicles may find themselves in the front line of the campaign to stop the spread of fire ants following a recommendation of the recent Senate inquiry into the problem.

The Senate report recommended the Federal Government, in conjunction with the Queensland and New South Wales Governments, work to increase compliance with fire ant movement controls, including biosecurity spot checks at border crossings with regular reports of identified breaches.

ANTagonist proactive fire ant treatment.

“These pests are the ultimate hitchhikers. Operators of public and private vehicle fleets and other potential fire ant carrier carriers should be aware of solutions available, and their part in the community response. But it is not fair to place on private and council fleet operators alone the responsibility to contain an issue that continues to expand from Queensland southwards into New South Wales. This is a national biosecurity issue, not just a one community sector issue, and it needs to be addressed nationally.”

Mr Priddy said that he believes that effectively eradicating fire ants in Australia requires collective effort, with everyone playing their part.

He emphasised the need for more treatment options and methods tailored to the diverse environmental situations and adverse weather conditions that often undermine current eradication strategies. By expanding the arsenal of treatments and ensuring they are adaptable to varying conditions, Mr Priddy said that he is confident that the fight against fire ants can be more successful.

Featured image: A colony’s ability to inflict hundreds of stings simultaneously are particularly hazardous to children, small pets and older people, but painful for everyone who comes in contact with the pests. Image credit: Sundew Solutions. 

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