In late November, five red fire ant nests were identified in Murwillumbah in New South Wales, 13 kilometres south of the Queensland border, where infestations have been recorded since 2001.
NSW has been on high alert for the pests for much of the year as tracking showed them moving further south; however, experts suggest the nests in Murwillumbah are not new.
“We know they’ve been here for more than a few months, otherwise the nests wouldn’t be as developed as they are,” Graeme Dudgeon, of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program said.
The insects cause painful bites on both humans and animals, which can lead to secondary infections. They also cause damage to electrical, irrigation and agricultural equipment, as well as feeding on seeds, other insects, spiders, lizards, frogs, birds and mammals, killing and displacing native plants and animals, with a risk that their damage can change ecosystems beyond repair.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates red fire ants cost the US more than $5b each year, with Australian primary producers concerned they could have a similar impact on the industry here, after a 2021 report for Biosecurity Queensland found red fire ants could cut agricultural output by up to 40 per cent.
NSW Agriculture Minister Tara Moriarty announced a biosecurity order in the area, limiting businesses and people within a five-kilometre zone of the Murwillumbah nests from moving products known to potentially carry the ants, such as soil, mulch and plants, without a permit and having their loads checked by experts.
Those who breach the emergency biosecurity order could face significant penalties with fines for breaches reaching up to $1.1m for an individual and up to $2.2m for a corporation.
“We are prepared for this discovery of fire ants in northern NSW and have immediately implemented our response plan which is part of the $600m national program,” Moriarty said.
“I am in contact with our teams on the ground who are enforcing the emergency control order, tracing where this infestation may have originated from and monitoring the immediate chemical eradication of the fire ants.”
The NSW Department of Primary Industries is encouraging the public to report any potential sightings of the ants or their nests on the hotline at 1800 680 244.