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    Australia invaded by 'invincible ant' that attacks everything in its path

By Kathy Marks in Sydney

20 October 2001

The South American fire ant, which packs a potentially lethal sting, will cause an environmental catastrophe if allowed to spread, Queensland state authorities in Australia warned yesterday.

The ants were first spotted in the Queensland capital, Brisbane, earlier this year and have already been found at 730 sites. They could colonise Australia in the next three decades. They already destroy £1bn of crops every year in the United States.

Scientists at the Department of Primary Industries, horrified by the discovery of a pest that they regard as worse than the infamous cane toad, have begun a £50m eradication programme nicknamed "the Big Nuke". Over the next three years, 500 volunteers will blanket the area with bait laced with a chemical that inhibits reproduction.

The tiny, reddish-brown ants, which are thought to have arrived in Brisbane on board a container ship, attack humans, livestock, pets, native animals and crops. An aggressive and resilient species, they sting repeatedly and in concert, causing pimple-like spots and an intense burning sensation hence their name.

In rare cases, the sting provokes an allergic reaction that can kill. In the southern United States, infested since the 1930s, 84 people have died.

The ants represent a threat to Australia's outdoors way of life. Activities such as camping and barbecues are out of the question in affected areas; even sitting in the back garden with a book can be a painful experience. In some American states, schools, parks and sports fields have had to be closed.

Keith McCubbin, head of the eradication programme, said: "This ant is one of the meanest, most evil creatures that God ever put on Earth. It hates every other living thing, and pours out of its nest ready to fight. If it can't be stopped in Queensland, it will be in the backyards of Sydney and Melbourne in the near future.

"If that happens, there'll come a time when a lot of us won't be able to have barbecues and picnics, or garden, or mow the lawn. And we won't be wearing thongs [flip-flops] anymore," he added.

The fear is that the insects whose Latin name is Solenopsis invicta, or invincible ant will spread around the country by hitching lifts on vehicles transporting plants and soil. A nest was recently discovered in a truckload of palms sent to Victoria from an infected nursery in Brisbane.

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