Farmers in parts of south-east Queensland infested for over 7 years are reporting fewer fire ant nests on their properties since Biosecurity Queensland started its aerial baiting program in 2017-18: sixteen years too late. In 2001, US fire ant experts said the only chance of containing and hopefully eradicating fire ants from SEQ was to treat the whole infestation repeatedly and comprehensively. And the cheapest and most effective way was by helicopter. Agriculture Minister at the time, Henry Palaszczuk, said ‘no’ and, instead, used Commonwealth funds to create hundreds of jobs in his electorate. That was the end of any chance of containing or eradicating fire ants from south-east Queensland. Aerial baiting did not become a mainstay of the program until I recommended it, again, in March 2017, to then federal Minister for Agriculture and Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce. Farmers in south-east Queensland believe aerial baiting is more effective than Biosecurity Queensland’s program of individual nest treatments. Individual nest treatments were never meant to part of the program. The program director introduced the practice in 2001 to speed up progress. US fire ant experts advise ‘baiting and waiting’ and to treat individual nests ONLY when they pose a threat to human or animal safety. Individual nest treatments are slow, expensive and disturb nests: causing them to split and spread. Fire ants now infests over 500,000ha: twelve times worse than in 2001. Unfortunately, the results the farmers are seeing now are likely to be short lived. In 2001, US fire ant experts said to apply four rounds of bait every season for three years. Biosecurity Queensland intends to apply just three rounds of bait for just two years. But in 2017-18, they managed only 1 ½ rounds and were still catching up in 2018-19. Biosecurity Queensland’s chronic under-treatment is one reason why fire ants continue to spread. Unfortunately, the results the farmers are seeing are likely to be short-lived. Fire ant nests are very difficult to find. Incipient nests can remain under-ground for months before they appear above ground. And they don’t look like ant nests which is why a farm worker stepped on one and got badly stung. Just because the farmers can’t see fire ant nests now does not mean they aren’t there and it doesn’t mean a fresh invasion of fire ants won’t move in. 16 years too late Biosecurity Queensland is doing what they were told to do in 2001. Time for a Royal Commission. 9th December 2019
Farmers in Mt Walker, Harrisville and Forest Hill, areas in south-east Queensland that have been infested with fire ants for over seven years are reporting a reduction in fire ant nests on their properties since Biosecurity Queensland started its aerial baiting program in 2017-18. Sixteen years too late, Biosecurity Queensland is now doing what United States fire ant experts advised in 2001. The results are likely to be temporary.
In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said the only way to stop the infestation of 40,000ha from getting worse was to repeatedly and comprehensively bait the whole of the infestation. And the cheapest and most effective way was by helicopter. In essence, they said ‘Get the helicopters out there and bombard it. If a horse or a chook falls over in the process, apologise, but get on with it. If you don’t do it now, you’ll never contain it and you will end up like Texas.” Well, we didn’t do it then and we have ended up like Texas. Fire ants now infest over 500,000ha of south-east Queensland.
This was because Queensland Agriculture Minister at the time, Henry Palaszczuk, rejected sound scientific advice because he feared aerial baiting would scare his voters. And because he wanted to use Commonwealth funding for a fire ant program to create hundreds of fire ant field assistants’ jobs in his electorate at a time when Queensland’s unemployment rate was a whopping 8.5%. All subsequent Ministers followed suit.
Aerial baiting did not become a significant part of Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant program until I recommended it, again, to then federal Minister for Agriculture and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, in a telephone conversation in March 2017.
The farmers note that Biosecurity Queensland’s previous strategy of injecting insecticide directly into individual nests was not as effective as the aerial baiting program Biosecurity Queensland adopted in the last two years: ie applying consecutive rounds of an insect growth regulator bait over large areas of the infestation by helicopter. Unfortunately, they are doing it sixteen years too late.
Treating individual nests was never part of the original fire ant plan and is contrary to advice issued by the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA recommends broadcasting an insect growth regulator bait over the whole area of an infestation, several times if necessary, and waiting for it to work. The USDA recommends treating individual nests, only when they pose a risk to human or animal safety because treating individual nests is slow, expensive and disturbs the nests and causes them to split and spread.
The program Director introduced the practice of injecting individual nests in 2002 to speed up the treatment program. He turned a ‘bait and wait’ approach program into a ‘search and destroy’ one. Instead of speeding up progress, the infestation now covers over 500,000ha: over twelve time what it was in 2002.
Contradicting Minister Palaszczuk who didn’t want to frighten his voters with aerial baiting, these farmers in south-east Queensland express support for a comprehensive aerial baiting program that does not leave any blocks of land untreated. And they encourage other property owners to support aerial baiting because leaving gaps in the blanket of bait means fire ants will spread and the situation will go back to square one.
Unfortunately, we are back at square one and we are as bad as Texas because Minister Palaszczuk also insisted that property owners give their consent for their properties to be treated when he had the authority to treat all properties for the public good. Most property owners agreed, but not all. Biosecurity Queensland’s patch-work of treatment is another reason fire ants continue to spread in south-east Queensland.
Unfortunately, I fear the results the farmers are seeing now will be short lived. In 2001, US experts recommended applying four rounds of insect growth regulator bait every season for three years to contain or eradicate the pest. That’s a total of twelve applications. The $411m Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Plan 2017-18 to 2026-27 prescribes just three rounds of bait for just two years: ie a total of six rounds. In 2017-18, Biosecurity Queensland couldn’t even manage that reduced rate: applying less than one and a half rounds of bait and still completing the 2017-2018 treatment schedule in 2018-19. Chronic under-treatment is another reason why fire ants continue to spread in south-east Queensland.
Unfortunately, I fear the results the farmers are seeing now will be short lived. They have noticed fire ant nests in the laneways and irrigator tracks that don’t get ploughed or tilled often and which are often moist. Early reviews of the program showed that Biosecurity Queensland’s treatment regime was not working because fire ant infestations persisted along irrigation lines in market gardens that had received a full complement of treatment.
Unfortunately, I fear the results the farmers are seeing now will be short lived because the farmers understand that if blocks of land are left untreated, the situation would be back to square one. It was possible to bait every block of land when the infestation covered around 40,000ha. That is out of the question now that fire ants infest over 500,000ha of south-east Queensland.
Unfortunately, I fear the results the farmers are seeing now will be short lived. Although they might not be seeing any fire ant nests now, that is no guarantee they are not there, or that new ones won’t move in. Fire ant nests can be very difficult to find. Incipient nests can remain under-ground for months before they appear above ground. And they don’t look like ant nests which is why a farm worker stepped on one and got badly stung. Luckily the worker was not allergic to fire ant sting which could have caused the worker to collapse with anaphylaxis and possibly die.
Sixteen years too late Biosecurity Queensland is implementing the 2001 fire ant plan, advised by US fire ant experts, to bait the whole fire ant infestation by helicopter. Farmers in infested parts of south-east Queensland are seeing fewer nests on their properties, but the results are likely to be temporary. Time for a Royal Commission.