Dr Wylie, Science Manager of Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Program, recently claimed in a television interview that Biosecurity Queensland had contained the spread of fire ants to 500,000ha of south-east Queensland and stopped fire ants from spreading 69,000,000 ha between Sydney, Mackay and Charleville. A study Biosecurity Queensland commissioned in 2013 found Biosecurity Queensland had never defined the boundaries of the invasion and fire ants are always found beyond Biosecurity Queensland’s area of operation. Dr Wylie has no idea how big the fire ant infestation is. Dr Wylie’s wildly optimistic estimation the Fire Ant Program has prevented fire ants infesting 69,000,000ha of eastern Australia is no better than a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Always claiming the main cause of fire ants spreading in south-east Queensland are queens’ mating flights, he calculated their spread on the rate of fire ant spread in Texas USA. Data from Texas USA shows the main causes of fire ant spreading are mating flights, flood water and human transport. Dr Wylie’s calculation does not account for the impact of two major flood events on fire ant infested south-east Queensland. Dr Wylie’s calculations do not account for Biosecurity Queensland’s failure to control the transport of soil and mulch from infested to clean areas: resulting in dozens of new, infested housing estates in south-east Queensland. This is not the first time Dr Wylie has made fake claims about the effectiveness of the fire ant program. In 2014 he published a paper claiming the program’s standard baiting program killed fire ant nests, without acknowledging those nests had also been injected with insecticide and with data from only 60 of the 905 known infested properties. An independent review said Biosecurity Queensland’s science program lacks research into the fire ant program’s control methods, surveillance methods and treatment methods: all which appear to be ineffective. It is time for a Royal Commission to hold Biosecurity Queensland to account for the waste of close to $500m of public money and a colossal biosecurity failure. 27th May 2019
Dr Wylie, Science Manager of Biosecurity Queensland’s Fire Ant Program recently made the claims on Channel Ten Television News, Brisbane, and in a paper he wrote in 2016, that the program had contained the spread of fire ants in south-east Queensland to around 500,000ha, and that, without the program, fire ants would now infest an area of 69,000,000ha of eastern Australia: between Sydney in the south, Mackay in the north and Charleville to the west.
Dr Wylie based his claims on Biosecurity Queensland Control Centre’s unpublished data and on comparisons with the rate of spread of fire ants in Texas in the USA. It is reasonable to make comparisons with the infestation in Texas: it has a similar climate to south-east Queensland and is similarly attractive to fire ants. Fire ant experts from Texas said in 2001 the infestation in south-east Queensland was as bad as anything they had seen in Texas. Texas also has a similar pattern of fire ant spread to that in south-east Queensland: a constant spread along the western leading edge of the infestation and “jumps” in all four directions, the result of human assisted spread, creating isolated infestations.
I commissioned an independent assessment of Dr Wylie’s claims.
Has the Fire Ant Program contained fire ants to 500,000ha of south east Queensland? The short answer is: No.
Dr Wylie has no idea how big the fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland is because, as independent scientific reviews in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2016 found, as the Queensland Biosecurity Capability review found in 2016 and as the Queensland Audit Office found in 2017, Biosecurity Queensland cannot prove the effectiveness of its program because it does not collect reliable and consistent performance data. Biosecurity Queensland Control Centre’s data is likely to be unpublished because it is non-existent.
Biosecurity Queensland has not reported the extent of the fire ant infestation for years. In August 2014, Biosecurity Queensland reported that fire ants were infesting an area of 323,808ha that covered 219 suburbs. By June 2018, Biosecurity Queensland reported that fire ants now infested 286 suburbs. So, now infesting 500,000ha – or even more?
Dr Wylie has no idea how big the fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland is: according to a review Biosecurity Queensland commissioned from Drs Keith and Spring from Monash University in 2013. Drs Keith and Spring were commissioned to ‘evaluate whether the program is on track to achieve eradication.’ They found Biosecurity Queensland has never been able to determine the boundary of the infestation; that there are always infested areas outside the areas Biosecurity Queensland searched and treated; and that immature nests, too small to be detected, outnumbered mature nests, at almost every stage of the invasion. They said the southern and western boundaries of the invasion advanced at a steady rate……south towards the Gold Coast and Scenic Rim and west into the Lockyer Valley. Which is why in 2017-18, fire ants were found infesting seven new housing estates outside Biosecurity Queensland’s operational areas: in Bridgeman Downs in Brisbane’s north, north-west in the Lowood area, south-west in Beaudesert and another four major infestations were found west into the Lockyer Valley.
If Dr Wylie IS correct and fire ants now infest an area of around 500,000ha, this would be evidence fire ants are spreading faster in south-east Queensland than in Texas USA which has been infested since 1953. In 2002, Biosecurity Queensland estimated the size of the infestation to be around 40,000ha. An infestation of 500,000ha now means the fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland has increased, on average, by 17% increase each year.
The rate of spread in Texas is significantly less than that. In 1986, Drs Cokendolpher and Phillips reviewed a number of studies on the rate of spread of fire ants in Texas: factoring in both natural spread and human assisted spread, factoring in years when the spread of fire ants appeared to increase because universities were conducting more thorough surveys and factoring in the years when the rate of spread appeared to decrease because some areas were so saturated with fire ants there was no-where else for them to spread. They determined the average rate of spread each year in Texas between 1953 and 1977 was 13.4% per annum: significantly less than the 17% increase each year Dr Wylie estimates is the rate of spread in south-east Queensland.
The fact is fire ants now infest most of Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan, Redlands and Gold Coast cities and have spread into the Sunshine Coast, Scenic Rim, Somerset, Moreton Bay and Lockyer Valley regions because Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated is responsibility to control the movement of fire ant carriers like soil, mulch and turf, from infested areas to clean areas and has dumped that responsibility onto the public.
Has the fire ant program stopped fire ants infested an area of 69,000,000ha between Mackay, Sydney and Charleville? The short answer is: No.
Dr Wylie’s estimation the program has prevented fire ants infesting 69,000,000ha of eastern Australia by now is no better than a back-of- the-envelope calculation. He bases his calculations on the work of Drs Hung and Vinson in their 1978 paper ‘Factors Affecting the Distribution of Fire Ants in Texas.’ They found that fire ants had spread 48km each year between 1957 and 1977. If fire ants were spreading 48km per year from 2002 to 2016 in eastern Australia, the infestation would cover 69,000,000ha, by now.
But Drs Hung and Vinson attributed the spread of fire ants in Texas to mating flights, flood water and transport by man. Dr Wylie claims the main cause of fire ant spreading in south-east Queensland is the mating flights of fire ant queens. Drs Hung and Vinson, citing the work of Dr Markin and colleagues, did find that 1% of fire ants queens can travel up to 16km from their nest of origin if the wind is behind them. If fire ant queens in south-east Queensland were travelling 16km from their nest of origin, the infestation in eastern Australia would be only 7,500,000ha – a lot short of the 69,000,000ha Dr Wylie claims.
But Drs Hung and Vinson also noted that Dr Markin and colleagues said that 99% of mating queens travelled less than 1.6km from their nest of origin: meaning natural spread could not be the only cause of fire ants spreading 48km each year in Texas between 1945 and 1955. They said flood waters and transport by man also caused the spread of fire ants.
Drs Hung and Vinson said flood water can play an important role in the spread of fire ants. Floating clusters of ants can be carried downstream and establish new colonies. Dr Wylie did not factor into his back-of-the-envelope calculations, the impact of the two massive flood events on fire ant infested south-east Queensland in 2011 and 2013.
Drs Hung and Vinson also said, each year, numerous new isolated infestations were recorded: each separated from the nearest know infestation by many kilometres. They said 90% of the new infestations found in Texas between 1945 and 1955 could be traced to nurseries that had received untreated stock from other nurseries. Dr Wylie did not factor into his back-of-the-envelope calculations the huge amount of development that has taken place in south-east Queensland in recent years, particularly the development of dozens of new housing estates in the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Redlands, Logan and Ipswich cities and the Sunshine Coast, Moreton Bay, Scenic Rim and Somerset regional areas. And Dr Wylie did not factor into his calculations the fact Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated is responsibility to control the movement of fire ant carriers like soil, mulch and turf from infested areas to clean areas and dumped that responsibility onto the public. As a result, the fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland has exploded and threatens the safety of the residents of dozens of new housing estates.
Finally, Dr Wylie did not factor into his back-of-the-envelope calculations the findings of Drs Keith and Spring in their 2013 evaluation of Biosecurity Queensland’s the eradication effort. They found Biosecurity Queensland had missed the opportunity to eradicate fire ants.
This is not the first time Dr Wylie has made fake claims about the Fire Ant Program. In 2014 he published a paper which claimed the program’s standard baiting program killed fire ant nests while having minimal impact on local ants. But Dr Wylie based his findings on only 60 of the 905 known infested properties, did not acknowledge that the standard baiting program had been compromised by injecting insecticide into all known nests and did not acknowledge that during the time of his study the fire ant infestation blew out from 44,876ha to 72,600ha.
The independent scientific team that reviewed the Fire Ant Program’s Science Program, managed by Dr Wylie, in 2010, described the program as ‘fragmented’. They said because the program lacked a consistent and coherent information base, the science program lacked research into the effectiveness of all three key elements of the program: its control methods, its surveillance methods and its treatment methods: all which appeared to be ineffective
It is time for a Royal Commission to hold all Queensland Ministers of Agriculture, all Fire Ant Program Directors and all Program Steering Committee members since 2001 accountable for this biosecurity disaster and this waste of around $500m of public money and to hand the Fire Ant Program to an agency competent to manage it.
‘Red Imported Fire Ant in Australia: What if we lose the war?’ Ross Wylie and Sharon Janssen-May Ecological Management and Restoration October 2016
‘Eradicating the red imported fire ant by numbers.’ Jonathan Keith and Daniel Spring, School of Biological Sciences, Monash University. 24th July 2013, The Conversation
Factors Affecting the Distribution of Fire Ants in Texas (Myrmicinae: Formicidae) Akey C. F. Hung and S. Bradleigh Vinson The Southwestern Naturalist Vol 23, No 2 (Mar. 20, 1978) pp 205-213.
‘Rate of spread of the Red Imported Fire Ant, Solenopsis Invicta) (Hymenoptera: Formicidae in Texas.’ Cokendolpher, J. and S. A. Phillips The Southwestern Naturalist Vol. 34, No.3, 1989.
‘Nuptial flight and flight ranges of the imported fire ant, Solenopsis saevissima richteri (Hymenoptera:Formicidae)’ Markin, G. P et al. Journal of the Georgia Entomology Society 1971, Vol. 6 No 3 pp145-156.
‘Effect of Broadcast Baiting on Abundance Patterns of Red Imported Fire Ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) and Key Local Ant Genera at Long-Term Monitoring Sites in Brisbane’, Australia. Melinda K. McNaught, F. Ross Wylie, Evan J. Harris, Clair L. Alston, Chris J. Burwell, and Craig Jennings. Journal of Economic Entomology, 107 (4) 1307-1315. 2014