Writings: Fire ants have infested Brisbane's south-west for 16 years. Biosecurity Queensland has failed.

Fire ants were first detected around Brisbane in 2001 in two locations: one in the north east, centred on the Port of Brisbane: the second and largest spread over suburbs in Brisbane’s south-west. The Port of Brisbane is again infested after a few years of being fire-ant free. Fire ants never left the suburbs in Brisbane’s south-west: including the suburb of Oxley, named after the explorer John Oxley. Near an entrance to the Queensland Police Service Academy at Oxley there is now a sign that says ‘Attention. Active Red Imported Fire Ant’ But after spending $400m of public money over sixteen years, on millions of tonnes of fire ant bait, the suburbs in Brisbane’s south-west are STILL infested and fire ants now infest an area ten times bigger than in 2001. Biosecurity Queensland has failed. Queensland has no chance of eradicating fire ants if Biosecurity Queensland continues to run any future fire ant program. 13 May 2017

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The largest and most persistent infestation of fire ants in south-east Queensland was first detected in suburbs about 10km south-west of Brisbane’s CBD. Centred on the suburbs of Richlands, Wacol, Inala, Ellen Grove, Forest Lake, Darra, Goodna, Darra, Oxley and Gailes, fire ants were also found in Westlake in the north, Eight Mile Plains in the east, Regents Park in the south, Springfield in the south-west and Redbank in the west.

In 2017, all those suburbs are still infested with fire ants and fire ants are spreading. In 2002, scientists estimated that fire ants were infesting about 40,000ha of south-east Queensland. They now estimate that fire ants infest about 411,500ha of south-east Queensland – ten times more than in 2002. Biosecurity Queensland has spent $400m of public money over sixteen years, thrown thousands of tons of bait and hundreds of litres of insecticide at fire ants in Queensland south-east and the infestation is thriving and spreading.

As the fire ant program’s Community Engagement officer in 2001, I liaised with residents and businesses that were already affected. Some businesses had to close down because their premises were infested. Residents were concerned about the safety of their children in their own backyards and the impact of fire ants on the value of their property.  I conducted many community engagement meetings to explain how serious fire ants are and the nature of a fire ant eradication program. Community members immediately gave the Queensland government full support to eradicate fire ants. ‘Do whatever you have to do!’ they said. But Biosecurity Queensland has failed a long-suffering public.

Oxley Creek, a major tributary of the Brisbane River, flows through these south-western suburbs, shaping them into flood plains, before entering the Brisbane River at Tennyson. Oxley Creek, rising in the Scenic Rim region, and its tributary Blunder Creek which rises in Greenbank, form one of the largest creek catchment systems in Brisbane. They flow through areas of native vegetation and wet-lands, industrial, recreational and residential areas and are subject to flooding.

When Blunder Creek wetlands was first found to be infested in the summer of 2002/03, fire ant program scientists invited me to inspect it. Scientists mark out nests in an infested area with wire stakes, topped by a small, luminous pink flag. I was shocked to see a sea of pink flags sticking up through the reeds and grasses. It was as bad an infestation as the scientists had found anywhere. Even more shocking was the fact that fire ant program treatment records showed that this wet-land area had been treated several times already. Either fire ant program treatment records were wrong and these wet-land had not been treated, or the bait had not been spread properly or the bait just did not work: and there was no way of knowing what was wrong. Biosecurity Queensland still does not know.

Oxley Creek and its tributaries have been subject to two major events since 2001: one in 2011 and another in 2013. Because fire ants originated in the flood plains of the Paraguay River in South American, fire ants can use flood events to spread. When floods threaten their nest, worker ants link legs, like holding hands, to create a living raft with their bodies, and tuck the queen and the brood of eggs safely into the centre of the raft.  The fire ant raft floats downstream until it reach higher ground and the ants establish a new nest.   The Blunder Creek infestation of 2003 was stark proof that, even then, Biosecurity Queensland could not eradicate fire ants. 

The sign on the entrance of the Queensland Police Service Academy in Oxley, warning staff and visitors of active fire ants, is evidence that fire ants continue to infest areas they infested 2001. Fire ants now infest an area ten times bigger than in 2001. Queensland and Australia have no chance of eradicating fire ant if Biosecurity Queensland continues to run any future fire ant program.