Biosecurity order imposed as fire ants nest destroyed

Steven Deare and Rachael Ward |

After invading Queensland cane crops, fire ants have now been found south of Byron Bay in NSW.
After invading Queensland cane crops, fire ants have now been found south of Byron Bay in NSW.

Sniffer dogs and biosecurity experts are searching for more signs of the potentially deadly fire ant in an area south of Ballina in NSW after authorities destroyed a recently discovered nest.

Experts destroyed the nest at Wardell on Saturday after it was disturbed and discovered by a gardener on Friday. 

The gardener was bitten and suffered what was described as blistering pain.

A biosecurity control order has been imposed to prevent the movement of goods that could carry the pests. 

Goods including mulch, soil, compost, agricultural equipment and more cannot be moved out of the 5km zone around the site.

NSW Department of Primary Industries workers are inspecting these goods.

The workers are also carrying out genetic testing of the fire ants, tracing the source and using sniffer dogs to learn of any further infestation. 

Colleagues from the National Fire Ant Eradication Program and Ballina council are part of the effort.

Fire ants were found to have moved from southern Queensland to NSW after some were discovered at a property 13km south of the border in November.

Their further progress to Wardell has prompted dire warnings.

Invasive Species Council advocacy manager Reece Pianta said the ants were one of the world’s super pests and could do more economic damage than cane toads, rabbits, feral cats and foxes combined if they were allowed to spread across Australia.

“Everyone in the Northern Rivers should be out checking for fire ants, particularly if you have had any recent material delivered to your property like soil, turf or mulch,” he said.

Fire ants
Fire ants are native to South America and arrived in Australia in the 1990s via freight. (Dept. Of Primary Industries/AAP PHOTOS)

The insects are a reddish-brown colour, measure two to six millimetres and can be aggressive when disturbed.

They are known to travel in floodwaters by locking together to create rafts and are most active during wet weather, according to the council.

The Northern Rivers area has recently been impacted by flooding.

NSW Farmers president Xavier Martin said all levels of government needed to step up efforts to exterminate the pest.

He said fire ants were eradicated from Port Botany in NSW in 2014 after government agencies acted quickly.

NSW agriculture minister Tara Moriarty said the Minns government increased the state’s contribution to eradication in 2023 from $15 million to $95 million.

Fire ants are native to South America and arrived in Australia in the 1990s via freight.

A Senate inquiry will examine the nation’s bid to eradicate the pest.

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt has previously said they could cause more damage to agriculture and the environment than all other invasive pests combined.

Mr Watt’s team has been contacted for further comment.

Nationals leader David Littleproud said the discovery of fire ants at Wardell came days after the pests were spotted floating in floodwaters on the Gold Coast.

He said Ballina was one of Australia’s most popular tourism areas but this could be at risk if the federal government did not eradicate fire ants.

Anyone who finds suspected fire ants in NSW can call the state biosecurity hotline on 1800 680 244.

AAP