Red Imported Fire Ant detection has state on high alert

A female fire ant. Photo: Invasive Species Council.

THE state’s agriculture industry is on high alert after a Red Imported Fire Ant nest was detected at Wardell, south of Ballina, on Friday 19 January.

Incident response teams from the National Fire Ant Eradication Program and NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) teams attended the site to gather further information and destroy the nest with liquid insecticide.

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To manage the risks of spread, a biosecurity control order was put in place with immediate effect, restricting movement within the surrounding five kilometre (km) area of the site.

Department of Primary Industry teams will support the local businesses and community who will need to lock down movement of landscaping, gardening, and building materials plus machinery until inspected and checked.

The following types of materials cannot be moved out of the five km zone: mulch, soil, compost and manure, growing media, hay, chaff, silage, potted plants, turf, agricultural and earth moving equipment, grass/vegetation and clippings.

NSW DPI are working on ascertaining where the ants were transported from and how long the fire ants have been at this site.

The suspected fire ants were called in by a gardener who had disturbed the nest while working, was bitten and suffered blistering and pain.

Fire ants are tiny (two to six millimetres long) and reddish-brown in colour, are aggressive when disturbed and will sting repeatedly.

Nests are mounds or flattish patches of soil with no obvious entrance holes, and up to 40 centimetres high.

Minister for Agriculture Tara Moriarty said, “Our teams were prepared for this discovery of fire ants south of Ballina and immediately implemented our response plan and destroyed the fire ant site.

“Red Imported Fire Ants are an invasive pest and that is why the Minns Government increased the NSW contribution to eradication from $15 million to $95 million last year.

“Biosecurity is a shared responsibility and I encourage everyone to continue to check their properties for these pests.

“With the summer cross-border travel in peak times I ask everyone to be careful of what they’re moving and where.

“We will continue to keep the community informed of progress and will continue working closely with industry, the local community and our state and federal counterparts.”

Leader of The Nationals and Shadow Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has claimed that the latest infestation is due to Labor being too slow to act on its Red Imported Fire Ant response program.

He said the latest discovery should trigger an urgent review of fire ant eradication funding.

“The whole country has been put at risk of fire ants because Labor was too slow to act,” Mr Littleproud said.

“Ballina is one of the most popular tourism areas in the country – it’s no small issue that this slice of paradise risks having its tourism title destroyed by fire ants if Labor doesn’t get on top of this.

“The Response Plan in July said $592 million was required over the next four years to control the pest, including immediate funding for 2023-24.

“The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program strategic review also estimated that at least $200 to $300 million per year was required.

“Labor’s funding was needed urgently in 2023, which put the time-critical response at risk.

“It has been obvious for some time the funding was not going to be enough.

“The lack of action and the delays in funding undermined previous work that had been done under the Coalition Government to control fire ants.”

The Ballina finding comes days after fire ants were spotted floating in floodwaters around the Gold Coast and warnings that fire ants could spread further south after being detected in Murwillumbah.

Member for Page Kevin Kogan warned that the spread of fire ants will “cost our economy $2 billion every single year and result in more than 140,000 extra medical visits”.

“This could also devastate our native wildlife and cut agricultural output by up to 40 percent.

“I urge everyone in the local area to check their premises, yards and paddocks for the red imported fire ants and then report any suspected sighting immediately,” Mr Hogan said.

NSW Farmers President Xavier Martin said the Ballina detection was another significant breach of the state’s biosecurity controls and called on the government to immediately ramp up control and eradication efforts.

“This latest outbreak is a stark reminder of the failure to control and eradicate these insidious pests, the entry of Red Imported Fire Ants into NSW last year demonstrated again the urgent need for increased investment by all governments to support biosecurity,” Mr Martin said. 

“NSW Farmers has called for greater focus on biosecurity for many years, but we’ve seen a failure at our borders and with the Queensland Government failing to take this problem seriously, we are now facing the spread of an incredibly dangerous pest into our state.

“Red Imported Fire Ants are a threat to agricultural production and to the landscape of NSW – they can damage agricultural equipment, sting livestock, ruin the natural environment, and pose a serious risk to the health and wellbeing of all people in NSW.”

The red fire ant is native to South America and is copper brown in colour with a darker abdomen.

They are highly aggressive and can travel up to five kilometres.

They also build rafts to travel along waterways.

They have been known to attack young animals and livestock, stinging around eyes, mouths and noses, leading to blindness and suffocation.

Their stings feel like being on fire and are toxic enough to kill people and animals.

Their nests look like small mounds of loose, crumbly dirt and are most often in direct sunlight on lawns, near concrete paths, taps and bodies of water, or along fence lines.

To check the identity of a suspected nest, people should gently poke the mound with a long stick and then check the ants “erupting” from the disturbed soil.

Everyone is urged to continue vigilance in keeping an eye out for fire ants, reporting suspected ants to the NSW Biosecurity Hotline at 1800 680 244 or online at

There are strict restrictions for moving material from control areas.

Breaching the emergency biosecurity order carries penalties of up to $1.1 million for an individual and up to $2.2 million for a corporation.

For more information on fire ants and control restrictions visit

Red Imported Fire Ants are an invasive pest.

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