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Saturday, 20 October, 2001, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
Australians on alert for 'invincible' ant
fire ants
The ants pose a threat to Australia's outdoor lifestyle
An ant that attacks anything in its path is slowly spreading though Queensland, Australia, sparking fears of crop damage and environmental destruction.

Residents have been put on alert for the tiny reddish-brown invaders, which cause crop damage costing 1bn each year in the United States.

Scientists at the Queensland government's Department of Primary Industries (DPI) have begun a 50m eradication programme for the pests, which have already been spotted at 730 sites.

DPI advice on what to do if you are stung
Apply a cold compress
Gently wash the affected area with soap and water
Leave the blister intact
People who are allergic to insect stings should seek medical attention immediately
The fire ants, which originate in South America, are thought to have arrived in the capital, Brisbane, on board a container ship.

Much more aggressive than common ants, the creatures, Solenopsis invicta, or invincible ant, can harm animals, crops, native flora and fauna, and people.

They are capable of inflicting a painful, burning sting, in rare cases provoking an allergic reaction that can kill.

Outdoor lifestyle threatened

The ants have infested the southern United States since the 1930s, causing a number of deaths and prompting the sporadic closure of schools, sports fields and parks.

Staff at the DPI's Fire Ant Control Centre have launched an eradication programme to try to prevent the ants spreading in Australia.

fire ants
The ants are tiny compared with this coin
"Fire ants will affect everyone," says the DPI's website. "They have the potential to destroy Australia's outdoor lifestyle, environment and agricultural production.

"The presence of fire ants will prevent our children from safely playing in our backyards. Family picnics in our parks and playgrounds will no longer be regular events."

Anyone who spots an ant is asked to contact the DPI but not to touch the insects or attempt to move their nests.

A team of 500 staff will treat 75,000 properties in the Brisbane area that have already been infested.

They also aim to educate the public about what the ants looks like and how to stop them spreading.

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