Exotic invasive ants, including the dreaded red imported fire ant, are looming as the next major battleground in the fight against invasive species.
At the recent Agriculture Ministers’ Forum, Ministers agreed to the expansion of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in South East Queensland.
To help tackle the problem in Australia the Plant Biosecurity CRC has been supporting the development of a national biosecurity plan, with the aim of pulling together research and expertise for invasive ant prevention and management.
To reduce the impact of the invasive ant menace all states and territories need to be prepared, so the Plant Biosecurity CRC has focused on identifying the research and development priorities that are needed for national preparedness.
Invasive ant specialists from national and state agricultural and environmental agencies have provided key input, and a meeting of scientists and regulators in Brisbane in 2016 identified the most important actions needed in the ant battle.
“Science underpins every aspect of the current National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program in Australia; ongoing research into the ant’s biology, behaviour, population dynamics, invasion ecology and genetics is used to improve methods of detection, spread prevention, public reporting and treatment of this pest,” said Dr Ross Wylie, Manager Scientific Services Biosecurity Queensland, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.
Key areas of research and action that the Plant Biosecurity CRC identified included:
- A review of the current entry pathways for exotic invasive ants and identification of any new means of entry and pathways, including offshore hot spots, high-risk points of entry, and lists of potential commodities and conveyances that could provide a means of transport.
- Improving the detection and identification of exotic invasive ants by adopting readily available diagnostic tools, or development of new tools;
Developing taxonomic keys and expertise to identify ant species that are both endemic and exotic.
Final sign off for the plan rests with Australia’s National Biosecurity Committee, the peak national forum to lead and implement changes to Australia’s biosecurity system.
The Committee has identified exotic invasive ants as a high priority for action.
The national plan, including the research and development priorities, will help prevent, prepare and respond to exotic invasive ant incursions, and will include the establishment of a national surveillance program.
Exotic invasive ants – an environmental, economic and social problem
Invasive ants are on the march in Australia, an environmental, agricultural and social amenity pest group that harms biodiversity and human health.
In terms of environmental damage these small ants can wreak havoc.
They can transform entire ecosystems, depleting insect life and even killing small animals and ground nesting birds.
The ecosystem web can be disrupted with impacts on pollination and seed dispersal, and weed invasions can be given a boost.
Some examples of invasive ant species of most concern in Australia are:
- Red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta)
- Yellow crazy ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes)
- Tropical fire ant (Solenopsis geminata)
- Electric ant (Wasmannia auropunctata)
- Argentine ant (Linepithema humile)
- African big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala)
- Browsing ant (Lepisiota frauenfeldi).
From an economic standpoint they can compromise ecotourism and recreation, reduce crop yields and lead to the death of farm animals.
Control costs are substantial.
The red imported fire ant control program in Queensland, for example, has amounted to a cost of almost $330 million over a 16 year period.