Fire ants feel the heat

A helicopter from Biosecurity Queensland uses world-first remote sensing technology to detect fire ants. Photo: Contributed
A helicopter from Biosecurity Queensland uses world-first remote sensing technology to detect fire ants. Photo: Contributed

WORLD-FIRST technology is being used to track the remaining fire ants and those tasked to find them say their days are numbered.

Biosecurity Queensland's fire ant control centre started hunting fire ants after they were detected in Brisbane in February 2001.

The South American pests pose a serious social, economic and environmental threat.

Fire ant control centre deputy director Craig Jennings said it started with conventional treatments, but now the big guns have been brought out, with surveillance helicopters armed with thermal imaging cameras.

"We had a plan at the start to do multiple treatments followed up by surveillance," Mr Jennings said. "We managed to reduce the number of ants to a very low level and that's where we are now."

The problem, though, was the remaining fire ants were spread across a wide area, which stretched the centre's manpower resources.

"So we needed to be smarter about it," he said. "We started to do some research on better surveillance techniques and the first thing we put out was the detection dogs.

"The second thing we looked at was a tool to do large-area surveillance and that's where the remote sensing comes in."

Working with engineers from the US and a company, the fire ant control centre developed a one-of-a-kind camera system.

It is being conducted in and around Ipswich now.

"The remote sensing is basically world-first technology; nobody else is doing this with the type of imagery," Mr Jennings said.

"From 150m in the air, because we're looking for a mound 10cm in diameter, the imagery we're taking is 2.5cm pixels for the red, green, blue and infrared, so it's very fine imagery.

"For thermal, it's 5cm imagery and when we started this project there was no technology on the market that would let us do thermal imagery from that height with that sort of resolution."

Combined with being able to target treatment to high-risk areas, that should result in a further reduction in infestations.

Asked if the fire ants could be eradicated, Mr Jennings said: "Yes, very much so.

"With remote sensing, with one set of the cameras and a helicopter we're looking at surveying 75,000ha a year; we're looking at having two cameras, so that's 150,000ha," he said.

"It's the first time we've had a tool to quantifiably say we're in a very good position to eradicate them. With remote sensing we're looking at a three-year plan at this stage."

Fire Ant Facts

  • Fire ants range in size from 2-6 mm.
  • They are reddish-brown with a black-dark brown abdomen.
  • Nests do not have visible entry or exit holes.
  • Don't touch the ants or the nest, or try to treat the nest yourself.
  • If stung, call Biosecurity Queensland on 13 25 23.

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