In May, I reported that fire ants were infesting four new housing estates in south-east Queensland: in Upper Kedron, Yarrabilba, Ripley and Pimpama. Since then, fire ants have been found in a new housing estate in Jimboomba in the Logan area, in a new estate in Raceview in the Ipswich area and in a new housing estate in Beerwah; the first to be found on the Sunshine Coast. And it is possible that the recent detection in Camp Mountain, in the Moreton Bay area, is in a housing estate, and a housing estate in Upper Coomera is also infested. The 2010 science review found that Biosecurity Queensland’s methods were not eradicating fire ants and instructed Biosecurity Queensland to ‘contain’ the spread of fire ants. Instead, Biosecurity Queensland dumped that responsibility onto the public. Biosecurity Queensland has been well funded to run the fire ant program with $400m of public money over sixteen years, so it has no excuse for dumping its responsibility onto the public and for winding back its team of Biosecurity Inspectors to a mere handful. Once, inspectors assisted businesses to mitigate their risk of spreading fire ant and monitored the movement of fire friendly materials like soil, mulch, compost and turf from infested areas. A mere handful of inspectors can do little to stop people accidentally or carelessly spreading fire ants when there are thousands of businesses operating in a fire ant infested area of over 400,000ha now. The Australian Agriculture Ministers will decide the future of the fire ant program this month. We have to hope for the sake of all Australians they continue to fund a program. But they will be throwing more good public money after bad if Biosecurity Queensland, whose incompetence is putting the safety of residents at risk, continues to run the program. 4th July 2017
Fire ants have invaded seven new housing estates in south east Queensland this year, probably more. At the end of May, I reported that fire ant nests had invaded two new housing estates in Upper Kedron in the Brisbane area, a new housing estate in Yarrabilba in the Logan area, another new housing estate in Ripley in the Ipswich area and yet another housing estate in Pimpama on the Gold Coast. Since then, more than 120 fire ant nests have been found in a new housing estate in Jimboomba in the Logan area, more than 50 nests have been found in a new estate in Raceview in the Ipswich area and fire ants have been found in a new housing estate in Beerwah; the first to be found on the Sunshine Coast.
And it is possible that fire ants are infesting new housing estates in Upper Coomera on the Gold Coast and in Camp Mountain, the first infestation found in the Moreton Bay area. Fire ants have been in Upper Coomera for eighteen months, but at the end of June, Biosecurity Queensland dispatched a team of community engagement officers to the area to show residents how to find fire ants. A planning application for a new housing estate in Upper Coomera was approved in February 2017. Have fire ants shown up in a new housing estate in Upper Coomera?
And a planning application for a new housing estate in Camp Mountain was approved in August 2016. Is the fire ant infestation that Biosecurity Queensland reported in Camp Mountain also in a new housing estate?
Development sites are particularly attractive to fire ants who like to build nests in disturbed soil. An infested housing estate poses a huge threat to the safety and well-being its residents. Wearing thongs, having backyard barbeques, gardening or just letting the kids run around will be out of the question.
It is likely the ants arrived in the new housing estates some months ago in loads of soil, mulch, compost or turf that came from fire ant infested areas; but are just making their presence felt now. Young fire ant nests can grow, undetected, underground for some months become they appear about the surface. They become visible during cooler winter months as the ants build mounds of dirt above their nests to soak up the warmth of the sun. But because the nests look like innocent mounds of dirt, unwary residents can stumble over them. If they do, dozens of ants will immediately attack their victim and inflict multiple burning stings. The stings turn into itchy pustules that last for days. The pustules can become infected. Some people go into anaphylactic shock. Some people die.
Fire ants are infesting new housing estates because Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated its responsibility for controlling the spread of fire ants. The 2010 scientific review team said that Biosecurity Queensland’s methods were not eradicating fire ants and the reviewers were shocked that the infestation had reached ‘an all-time high of 90,000ha’. The reviewers recommended, and the funding partners agreed, that the program should go into ‘suppression and containment’ mode until it developed new eradication methods. Biosecurity Queensland’s response to that direction was to almost totally abrogate its responsibility for containing the spread of fire ants by dumping that responsibility onto the public.
The Biosecurity Act 2014 creates a ‘General Biosecurity Obligation’ which means people and organisations living or working in fire ant biosecurity zones are legally responsible for not spreading fire ants. This is nothing new. The Plant Protection Regulation 2002 made it illegal to move fire ants or fire ant carriers. Many residents and community minded businesses did all they could to mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants: but some didn’t and fire ants continued to spread.
During the consultation phase of the proposed Biosecurity Act, industry groups supported the idea of some level of community biosecurity responsibility, but doubted the General Biosecurity Obligation would work. They said people would need to know if they lived or worked in a fire ant biosecurity zone and, if so, what to do. Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Biosecurity Zone map is now a year out of date, and they keep changing fire ant movement controls.
And while industry groups were prepared to shoulder some of the responsibilities for containing the spread of fire ants, they were concerned about the government’s ability to meet its share of the responsibility: given that Biosecurity Queensland has drastically cut its number of Biosecurity Inspectors down to a mere handful. A large team of Inspectors used to assist industries who worked with potential fire ant carriers like soil, mulch, compost or turf, to develop management plans to mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants. They also monitored businesses’ compliance with those plans and inspected their sites for fire ants, which are notoriously difficult to find. And Inspectors had powers to prosecute those who illegally moved fire ants or fire ant carriers.
Legislation did not stop the spread of fire ants after 2002 and the Biosecurity Act 2014 is not stopping it now because Biosecurity Queensland dumped its responsibility for containing the spread of fire ants onto the public and reduced its team of Biosecurity Inspectors down to a handful. There is little a mere handful of inspectors can do to stop the thousands of businesses operating in an infestation area of over 400,000ha from carelessly or accidentally moving fire ants.
Biosecurity Queensland has been well-resourced to run the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program: $400m of public money over sixteen years, so it has no excuse for failing to contain the spread of fire ants, as it was instructed in 2010.
The Australian Agricultural Ministers Council will meet this month to decide the future of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. For the sake of Queensland and the rest of Australia we have to hope the Ministers decide to continue to fund a fire ant program. But the Ministers will be throwing more good public money after bad if Biosecurity Queensland, whose incompetence is putting residents’ safety at risk, continues to run any future fire ant program.