Red imported fire ants (RIFA)

Notice

The red imported fire ant (RIFA) (Solenopsis invicta) is one species of fire ant. RIFA pose a serious threat to our environment and has had significant environmental, health and economic impacts in other countries.

Red imported fire ants are not known to be present in Victoria and we want to keep it that way.

If discovered, an eradication program will immediately be put in place. Victoria is contributing to the national eradication program being conducted in Queensland, where fire ants are widely present in the greater Brisbane area.

Red imported fire ants are a declared exotic pest in Victoria and a comprehensive set of regulations are in place to control the movement of high-risk materials from Queensland, including:

  • nursery plants
  • potting mixtures
  • mulches
  • soil
  • equipment

Background

Consignments of nursery stock arriving from Queensland must be free of live ants. Victoria remains vigilant in verifying plants and host material entering the state by working with businesses to verify host material entering the state.

Red imported fire ants (Figure. 1) are one of the most invasive species to reach Australia.

Red imported fire ants can travel long distances by hitchhiking in motor vehicles and in or on soil, pot plants, nursery stock, sand, gravel, grass, turf, hay, wood, or soil-moving equipment. Local dispersal occurs when a Queen flies off to mate and establish a new colony.

RIFA were unknowingly imported into Brisbane some time before being first detected there in 2001. Since then, a national cost-shared eradication program has been operating. The Greater Brisbane area remains the centre of infestation in Australia with an operational area for the program of over 500,000 ha. Several other much smaller incursions have been detected and eradicated in Australia since 2001, including several in Queensland, in Sydney in 2014 and at the Freemantle Ports in Western Australia in 2019.

Agriculture Victoria reminds the nursery industry and the public of the seriousness of this pest and asks that anyone who finds live ants in host material from Queensland, to report it immediately to Agriculture Victoria.

Close up image of a fire ant walking on ground.

Import requirements – Verification upon arrival

All Victorian businesses receiving consignments of RIFA host material from the Queensland biosecurity zone (see below) must:

  1. Arrange for a Biosecurity Officer to verify the consignment on arrival, by calling 1800 878 962, or
  2. Be accredited under a compliance agreement CA-17 and ensure each consignment is accompanied by a:
    1. PHAC stating ICA-39 and including the treatment; or
    2. PHC stating compliance with the relevant treatment requirements under Condition 36 of the Victorian Plant Quarantine Manual; or
    3. BHBC stating ECCPRIFA28 and including the treatment; or
    4. BHBC stating ECCPRIFA21.

In the event of potential non-conformances, please contact plant.standards@agriculture.vic.gov.au for further information.

Export requirements

RIFA host material may enter Victoria if:

  • It originates from an area covered by an area freedom certificate issued by an officer responsible for agriculture in the State or Territory; or
  • It is accompanied by a Plant Health Certificate (PHC), Plant Health Assurance Certificate (PHAC) of Biosecure HACCP Biosecurity Certificate (BHBC), certifying or declaring that the material has been treated in a manner that meets Victoria’s importation requirements for RIFA (see condition 36 of the Victorian Plant Quarantine Manual);

and

Certification/declaration is forwarded to market.access@agriculture.vic.gov.au prior to dispatch.

RIFA Host Material

Host material means any material capable of harbouring red imported fire ants including:

  • plants and plant products;
  • agricultural equipment;
  • used packages; and
  • earth material and landscaping materials (including potting media, organic mulch and composted animal manure).

Host material excludes tissue culture, bare rooted plants washed free of earth material and seedlings in plugs/cells.

Interstate Market Access

The Interstate Plant Quarantine Zone map shows where movement restrictions of RIFA host material apply to Queensland (5km of an outbreak of RIFA) and can be found using the Interstate plant quarantine zone map page.

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Distinguishing red imported fire ants from other ants can be difficult since they look like most ordinary red/brown ants. A sure sign is their very aggressive behaviour when disturbed. If you poke a nest with a stick, they will come pouring out.

Native ants in Victoria are not usually aggressive and tend to run away from disturbances.

Key identifying features of RIFA are (Figures. 1-3):

  • reddish-brown with a dark brown abdomen at the rear (Figures. 1 & 2)
  • small size - 2 to 6 mm long (Figure. 3)
  • a range of sizes can be found within one nest (Figure. 3)
  • nest in soil
  • aggressive nature

For ants that look similar to fire ants visit RIFA look-a-likes.

Close up photo of dead fire ant.

Lots of fire ants of different sizes

Red imported fire ant nests are not always easily identifiable. In warmer and drier months red imported fire ant nests are flat and may look like heaps of loose dirt (Figures. 4 & 5). In winter red imported fire ants build their nest higher above ground to regulate the temperature and retain heat (Figure. 6). Regardless, a characteristic feature is that the nests have no visible entry or exit holes. Native ants typically build nests which have an obvious opening.

Often, the red imported fire ant nest will not be visible, being constructed under objects such as timberlogsrocks, pavers or bricks. If there is no cover, mounds will be constructed in open areas in full sunlight.

On residential properties they can be found in lawns, around garden beds, along foot path edges, near taps and in and around utility pits. On rural properties looks for them around dams, along edges of cultivated land, unused cropping land, and along fence lines.

RIFA societies can exist as single nests with one queen or super colonies with multiple queens and interconnecting nests (Figure. 7).

For an instructive video on collecting and photographing fire ants visit the Red imported fire ants page.

Fire ant nest on ground.

Fire ant nest on ground near letterbox.

Fire ant mound.

Multiple fire ant nests in field.

RIFA pose a serious threat to our environment and has significant environmental, economic, social and health impacts.

Where colonies have been established in the environment, species diversity has declined. The sheer numbers of ants can outcompete local invertebrate fauna. Deaths of lizards, turtles and birds have also been recorded from red imported fire ant attacks.

Red imported fire ant nests built under pavements or foundations can cause structural instability which may lead to collapse. They are attracted to electricity and can damage equipment and infrastructure impacting business, land and property values (Figure. 8).

Red imported fire ants invade a wide variety of crops and have been known to damage agricultural equipment, delay harvesting and ultimately reduce production of some agricultural industries. Animals and livestock can be harmed or even killed by RIFA attacks with the young, weak or sick particularly vulnerable.

Red imported fire ants thrive in disturbed environments within urban areas including backyards, golf courses, parks and recreational areas, schools and roadsides. Their presence will deter outdoor activity which will severely limit Australia's coveted outdoor lifestyle.

Fire ant nest near electric box.

The following ants are commonly mistaken for red imported fire ants at first glance. These ants are not required to be reported but if unsure it is better to make a report than not.

Coastal brown ants – Pheidole megacephala (Figure. 9).

Also known as big-headed ants, this globally invasive species originating from Africa. They are distinguished by two very different sizes of workers – minors (2-3 mm long) and majors (3.5-4.5 mm long). The majors have disproportionately large heads and use their powerful jaws for cutting up large pieces of food for ease of transportation.

Big headed ants

Meat ants – Iridomyrmex purpureus (Figure. 10).

The meat ant is a native species that is widespread throughout mainland Australia. Measuring 6-8 mm long it is characterised by its iridescent dark blue to purplish body and red head. This ant also displays aggressive behaviour if the nest is disturbed. They can deliver a ‘pinching’ bite, but do not sting. Nests appear as shallow-domed piles of fine gravel.

Close up image of meat ants.

Sugar ant – Camponotus consobrinus (Figure. 11).

These large native ants (5-15 mm long) are commonly seen in Victorian forests and woodlands although also inhabit urban areas where they are considered a pest. They have orange-brown body and legs with a black head and abdomen. Sugar ants are timid and neither bite nor sting.

Close up image of sugar ants.

Pennant ants – Tetramorium sp. (Figure. 12).

Tetramorium are a large group of ants distributed worldwide with numerous species found in Australia including some undescribed species in Victoria. With their black abdomen and reddish body, they are often mistaken for red imported fire ants.

Close up image of pennant ants.

Mono ants – Chelaner rubriceps. (Figure. 14).

This native species is found on the eastern and south-eastern coast of Australia from Queensland through to South Australia. It often, but not always, has a red coloured body and darker abdomen with lighter coloured patches. Nest locations can be found on the ground, under leaf litter and vegetation or under loose bark on the trunks of eucalypts.

Close up image of Red Mono ants.

Report

If you think that you have found red imported fire ants you must report them immediately using the Agriculture Victoria Public Online Reporting Form or by calling the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline 1800 084 881.

Red imported fire ants are a notifiable pest in Victoria which means there is a legal obligation to report suspected detections. This obligation applies to everyone, including individuals and organisations

Photograph

Take clear photographs of the ants and nests and upload them with your report. See how to collect and photograph dead red imported fire ants.

Collect

A sample of the ants may be required for diagnostic confirmation. If you are comfortable, you can collect a sample using the instructions below. If you have concerns about your ability to safely collect a sample, please contact us by calling the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline 1800 084 881..

Be aware and alert.

Red imported fire ants bite and sting.

RIFA are aggressive and when disturbed they will sting simultaneously and repeatedly. The stings are painful, producing a burning or itching sensation that can last up to an hour. Victims of multiple stings may feel as if their body is on fire. After several hours small pustules may form at sting sites. These can become itchy and can take up to 10 days to heal (Figure. 14). There is a risk of secondary infection if the pustules break.

In extremely rare cases stings can cause a severe and sometimes fatal allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). Seek medical attention if showing any sign of adverse reaction to stings.

For red imported fire ant fire ants first aid visit the Fire ant first aid | National Fire Ant Eradication Program.

Blisters on young mans arm.

To safely collect and photograph red imported fire ants you should have the following items on hand:

  • a pair of latex or washing gloves
  • a can of household insect spray
  • a long stick
  • some tissue
  • a zip lock bag

To safely collect a sample, adhere to the following instructions:

  1. Put on the gloves and stand well back from the nest
  2. Gently prod the edge of the nest with the stick
  3. The ants will run up the stick
  4. Spray the ants on the stick and move away from the nest
  5. Gently wipe the sprayed ants off the stick using the tissue
  6. Spray the tissue again if the ants are still moving
  7. Photograph the dead ants on the tissue
  8. Put the tissue with the dead ants on it in a zip lock bag and keep in the fridge. You will be given instructions on how to submit the sample if this is necessary.
  9. Do not spray the rest of the nest with insect spray – it will not kill the whole nest and will cause the ants to move and spread.

For an instructive video on collecting and photographing red imported fire ants visit the Red imported fire ants page.

Reporting an unusual pest or disease of plants or honey bees

Report any unusual plant pest or disease immediately using our online reporting system or by calling the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline on 1 800 084 881. Early reporting increases the chance of effective control and eradication.

Please take good quality photos of the pests or damage to include in your report where possible, as this is essential for rapid pest and disease diagnosis and response. For tips on how to take a good photo, visit the Cesar Australia photo for identification guide.

Your report will be responded to by an experienced staff member who will seek information about the detection and explain next steps, which may include a site visit and sampling to confirm the pest or disease.

Report online

Further Information

For further information regarding movement and treatment requirements, please contact your local Agriculture Victoria Biosecurity Officer plant.standards@agriculture.vic.gov.au or 1800 878 962 or visit the Plant Quarantine Manual page.

Page last updated: 21 Sep 2023