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Infestations of the imported fire ant were first identified in Brisbane in 2001; despite a decade long eradication programme the fire ants continue to spread farther into SouthEast Queensland. Scientists estimate that if they are not controlled they will spread into 2 million square kms over the next 30 years.

Fire ants are native of South America where their numbers are kept in check by pathogens and predators such as insects, armadillos and anteaters. Photid flies prey on fire ants in a particularly gruesome way, they pierce the fire ant’s body and lay eggs, when the larvae hatch they eat the brain of the ant while it is alive, the ant wanders around in a zombie like state for some weeks, until it dies and an adult fly emerges from the ant’s head.

In 1929 fire ants were introduced into Alabama, USA, through soil ballast in ships. They now occupy 300 million acres in southern states, sting 20 million people pa, cause environmental damage, species extinctions, damage crops and electrical equipment, have killed 80 people and countless animals and although eradication is now impossible they cost USA approximately $6.4 billion pa.

There are a number of characteristics that make this species such a dangerous pest.

Sting
Fire ants use their jaws to first bite and grip their victim, then they sting repeatedly with a retractable abdominal stinger that injects toxic alkaloid venom. The sting induces a painful burning sensation (hence the name fire ants) and produces a pustule and swelling. If not removed they continue to sting repeatedly in a circular pattern. Fire ants attack their victim’s eyes, mouth and nose, which can blind and suffocate even relatively large animals.

Aggressive behaviour
Fire ants are voracious omnivores and consume insects, reptiles, turtles, birds, mammals, seeds, bulbs, fruit, grass and saplings. They will quickly swarm over a victim in huge numbers, when stinging they emit alarm pheromones which makes all of them sting repeatedly in unison.

Population

Fire ants live in large colonies, the queen ant may lay up to 1500 eggs per day. There are two types of colonies, monogyne colonies have one queen, its members are territorial and will defend their colony from foreign fire ants. Polygyne colonies, which have more than one queen, are not hostile to fire ants from other colonies and unfortunately this allows the development of dense super colonies.

Spread
Fire ants spread naturally through colonisation and through human activities, mainly transportation of infested plants, landscaping supplies and equipment.

How do you recognise fire ants

They are reddish brown ants, with a variety of sizes (2mm to 6mm) within the same nest, they are very aggressive and will swarm rapidly, their nests are dome shaped mounds of granular soil without visible openings because they enter through underground tunnels.

If you suspect the presence of fire ants do not try to eradicate them yourself, notify Biosecurity Qld on 13 25 23 or refer to Dept of Primary Industry website www.dpi.qld.gov.au.

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Why does attentiveness to nature matter? In a very fundamental sense, we are what we pay attention to. Paying heed to beauty, grace, and everyday miracles promotes a sense of possibility and coherence that runs deeper and truer than the often illusory commercial, social "realities" advanced by mainstream contemporary culture. ... Our attention is precious, and what we choose to focus it on has enormous consequences. What we choose to look at, and to listen to--these choices change the world. As Thich Nhat Hanh has pointed out, we become the bad television programs that we watch. A society that expends its energies tracking the latest doings of the celebrity couple is fundamentally distinct from one that watches for the first arriving spring migrant birds, or takes a weekend to check out insects in a mountain stream, or looks inside flowers to admire the marvelous ingenuities involved in pollination. The former tends to drag culture down to its lowest commonalities; the latter can lift us up in a sense of unity with all life. The Way of Natural History, edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner and published by Trinity University Press (Texas)