For most of us, ants are merely annoying. But a growing population of fire ants in the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, is causing significant damage.
Fire ants were first detected in Brisbane in 2001. Solenopsis invicta is believed to have hitched a ride on a shipping container to the continent from the Americas. Close to 99% of the country has a habitat suitable for the invasive fire ant, and the species currently has no major predators.
Since the initial invasion of the ant, Australian authorities have tried to slow the spread through a 10-year, $400-million eradication plan, but new ant populations continue to pop up throughout the continent.
Why are fire ants problematic?
The fire ant population has grown to epic proportions, placing impending economic threats on the country. If the ants move into southeast Queensland, the damage to infrastructure, homes, and crops could cost more than $1 billion annually.
Economists at Central Queensland University modeled two spreads: a minimum of 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) annually versus a worst-case scenario of 48 kilometers (around 30 miles) annually. By 2035, the estimated cost of the minimum spread hovers around $890 million, with the maximum spread potentially costing more than $1.2 billion.
Households would bear most of the cost of this spread through pesticides, vet bills, and structural damage. These effects would cause “cascading negative impacts on future generations,” per the Guardian.
As a comparison, fire ants cost Americans upward of $7 billion annually in “damage and control,” Reece Pianta from the Invasive Species Council reported to the Guardian.
What is being done about the situation?
The National Fire Ant Eradication Program is one of the organizations responsible for controlling and conducting data analysis on the spread of ants across Australia. The program is urging the public to bait and treat for the ants, avoid moving any materials like turf and grass that may further distribute the ants, and report any sitings of the ants to the proper authorities.
The program offers numerous trainings for homeowners and business owners to learn about fire ant biology and ways to mitigate the spread of the ants. There are also penalties for the unlawful transfer of fire ant waste and materials across biosecurity zones.
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