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Fire ant impacts - why they are a problem

Please report suspect fire ants online or contact Biosecurity Queensland on 13 25 23.

Photo of the blisters that result from each sting of the Red Imported Fire Ant, SE Queensland

Fire ants swarm to attack and sting repeatedly.

Fire ants are a serious pest because they have the potential to cause major social, environmental and economic impacts in Queensland.

Social impacts

Fire ants are a social menace because of their sting. Encounters with fire ants usually involve dozens of ants moving quickly and undetected. By the time they sting, a large number of ants could be on your body, all stinging at once. Stings from fire ants can cause a painful, burning itching sensation, which can last for up to an hour. Multiple stings give the sensation that the body is on fire.

Only in extreme cases will fire ant stings be lethal to humans. This could occur to those experiencing a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) and who do not seek medical attention. It is advisable to seek medical advice if you have any signs of an allergic reaction. There is also a risk of secondary infection if the blisters or pustules that result from the stings are broken.

If stung by fire ants:

  • Apply a cold compress to relieve the swelling and pain.
  • Gently wash the affected area with soap and water and leave the blister intact.
  • Seek medical attention if you are allergic to insect stings or experience symptoms of allergy.

Fire ants have the potential to seriously impact on our outdoor lifestyle. In the United States, people in fire ant infested areas have changed their habits to avoid exposure to the ant. For example, people do not have picnics on the lawn, go barefoot or sit or lie on the ground, or even stand for too long in one spot because they will be stung.

The impact of fire ants is not restricted to people. Pets and domestic animals can also be stung and injured, and may have allergic reactions or be blinded by exposure to the venom.

Cricket covered

Fire ants can destroy entire ecosystems.

Environmental impacts

Fire ants have the potential to inhabit most of the major coastal areas of Australia, and extensive areas of the tropical north. Vast areas of the continent's natural environment, including world heritage areas and national parks, are prone to fire ant invasion.

Fire ants are very aggressive and are voracious feeders on small ground fauna, including insects, spiders, lizards, frogs, birds and mammals. Consequently, fire ants may displace or eliminate some of Australia's unique native species.

The ants' habit of eating or damaging seeds can cause major changes in an ecosystem over time. Fire ants are also predatory, attacking insects and animals that pollinate native plants.

Skeletal remains of livestock

Fire ants can cause considerable damage to the agricultural industry.

Economic impacts

Mounds formed by fire ant nests can be a serious problem in lawns, sporting fields and golf courses. The ant's activities and their nesting materials can cause expensive damage to sensitive electrical equipment. They can also affect the tourism industry as well as the export trade of restricted items with fire ant-free countries.

Fire ants can significantly affect the agriculture industry. Newborn or hatching animals are particularly prone to attacks that can lead to death. Fire ants attack young animals and sting in and around the eyes, which can lead to blindness; and around the mouth and nose, which can lead to swelling and suffocation. Fire ants also invade the food and water supplies of animals. The animals are unable to reach the food or water without being seriously stung, and this can lead to starvation and dehydration.

Fire ants sometimes feed on seeds, and can fatally damage some plants by tunnelling through roots and stems. They protect some species of pest insects that produce 'honeydew'. This downgrades the quality of produce and assists in the spread of some diseases. Fire ants will also feed on important biological control agents and interfere with integrated pest management practices.

Fire ant mounds can destroy equipment such as irrigation systems and can also damage machinery during harvesting operations.

Further information

Last updated 01 July 2016