Biosecurity alert: Red Imported Fire Ant

Page last updated: Wednesday, 12 February 2020 - 4:27pm

Fremantle port workers, residents and businesses are asked to report sightings of unfamiliar ants, following detection of one of the world's worst invasive ant species in Fremantle.

Western Australia is currently free from RIFA. If it became established in WA, it could severely damage the local environment, Australia's outdoor lifestyle, and agricultural and tourism industries. RIFA inflict a painful, fiery sting, which in rare cases can cause an acute allergic reaction.

Treatment and surveillance activities are underway, and a quarantine area has been established. 

Report your observations using the MyPestGuide Reporter app or online at mypestguide.agric.wa.gov.au.

Reporting options

Report any unfamiliar ants immediately – even if unsure. Do not touch ants or disturb the nest as they may aggressively defend it. Do not send in live samples. Take a photo if safe to do so.

Contact the department via:

Eradication activities

The Department Of Primary Industries and Regional Development detected red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) at two adjoining businesses at Fremantle Ports in November 2019.

A small number of nest entry points (six) in close proximity were found as part of routine surveillance. Department officers have moved quickly to treat the infestation and destroy the ants.

The department is also undertaking surveillance of the port and surrounding areas to determine any spread of the pest. So far, no more nests have been found.

Quarantine area established

To support response efforts and prevent any potential spread of the pest, a Quarantine Area Notice (QAN) been put in place for parts of Fremantle.

map of quarantine area

Quarantine Area boundaries

The Quarantine Area extends from Port Beach, as far south as the South Fremantle dog beach and east to East Street. Streets included are listed below:

Coast line of Rous Head south from Port Beach, coast line of Rous Head with the Inner Harbour, Queen Victoria Street, coast line of Fremantle and South Fremantle until South Fremantle Dog Beach, west side Marine Terrace, north side of South Street, west side of South Terrace, north side of Douglas street, west side of Carnac Street, north side Wray Avenue, west side of Hampton Road, north side of Stevens Street, west side of Swanbourne Street (including Stevens Reserve), west side of East Street, north and south side of Beach Street (including North Worrall Park and East Street Jetty), west side Queen Victoria Street, south side of Tydeman Road, west side Port Beach Road and Port Beach.

The QAN introduces restrictions on moving the below risk material to areas outside of the quarantine area.

Quarantine Area risk material

  • Potted plants
  • Plant mulch, bark and wood chips
  • Hay and straw
  • Manure
  • Soil (including soil attached to non-potted plants, potting mix, and any form of manufactured potting media, pebbles and gravel)
  • Grass and turf (including grass sod with soil attached)
  • Soil, turf, grass or other organic matter that has or appears to have been part of a nest or mound built by RIFA
  • Any machinery or equipment used in digging, earthmoving or disturbing of soil
  • Shipping containers

Quarantine Area restrictions for residents

Restrictions DO NOT apply to risk material that have been in the quarantine area for less than five days.

The below restrictions apply only to items used for domestic purposes

  • Potted plants can be moved if re-potted with commercial soil from a sealed package, and moved within 2 days of re-potting.
  • Potted plants can be moved if chemically treated.
  • Turf can be moved if treated with cover spray.
  • Some other affected items can be moved if heat treated or fumigated.
  • Refer to the Quarantine Area Notice for chemical and heat treatment options, associated movement periods and safety advice. Chemicals should be used as per label instructions or APVMA permit.

Quarantine area restrictions for business

Restrictions DO NOT apply to items that have been in the quarantine area for less than five days.

The Department will assist businesses to ensure the below movement restrictions have minimal impact on business operations. The below apply only to items used for commercial purposes. 

  • Risk material and equipment/machinery may be moved if approved by DPIRD. Contact DPIRD’s Pest and Disease Information Service on 9368 3080 for movement authorisation.
  • Shipping containers may be moved if they are free from any RIFA host material or RIFA nest material. This will require businesses to undertake a visual check and if needed the same clean-down procedures used for all biosecurity risks (see below).

Clean-down procedures 

  • physically remove the material (e.g. scraping or blowing)
  • brush down
  • wash down or steam clean
  • air blast with an air compressor.

Components requiring inspection

  • Cargo container - interior, exterior, locking mechanisms
  • Bulldozer - rippers, blade, track frame, belly plate
  • Excavator - track frame, underside of slew ring, buckets
  • Drott - track frame, rippers, belly plate
  • Grader - rippers, mould board
  • Motor scraper - overflow area on rear of scraper
  • Tractor and slasher - top of slasher, skids
  • Backhoe - buckets and backhoe attachment
  • Bobcat - buckets, belly-plate/other attachments
  • Trucks - soil build-up in bins, chassis rails.

How to identify Red Imported Fire Ant

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Many different sized ants can be found in one nest

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Red imported fire ant (RIFA), Solenopsis invicta, is one of the most serious and invasive ant pests in the world, because of its harmful effects on people, agriculture, flora and fauna, infrastructure and recreational activities.

Below is information on what to look for. This identification video (courtesy of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program) may be useful if you are looking for nests or observing ants.  Although please keep in mind any RIFA nests in WA will look different to nests in Queensland due to our sandy soils.

What to look for

  • Hard to distinguish from common native ants.
  • 2-8mm, reddish brown in colour with a darker abdomen.
  • Ants of varying sizes in one nest.
  • Nests that often have no visible entry holes like other ant nests.
  • Young nests can be indistinct or start out as small piles of excavated soil.
  • A fiery sting that can blister and form pustules at the sting site.

Where to look

RIFA nests may be found next to or under other objects on the ground, such as timber, logs, rocks, pavers or bricks. Look near pots or any areas of disturbed ground as well as:

  • pot plants on the ground
  • stores of topsoil, mulch and potting mixes
  • open areas like lawns, firebreaks or fence lines.
  • under landscape materials (e.g. logs, stones)
  • under timber or pallets on the ground
  • adjacent to buildings and other structures
  • untidy or overgrown areas
  • near areas of permanent water (e.g. the banks of dams, rivers, ponds, aquaculture containers)
  • tufts of grass in open areas, where the soil is built up around the tufts.

Impact of RIFA

Health

  • Can inflict a painful and fiery sting, which in some people can cause an allergic reaction.
  • Fire ants usually move quickly, allowing large numbers to move onto humans before they are detected.
  • Stings from fire ants can cause a painful, burning, itching sensation, lasting up to 1 hour.
  • Multiple stings give sensation that body is on fire.
  • Small pustules may form at sting sites several hours after stinging and may become itchy.
  • Broken pustules may become infected.

Environmental

  • Can eventually form 'super colonies' with multiple queens and can spread rapidly.
  • Potential to inhabit most of Australia’s major coastal areas and extensive areas of tropical north.
  • Feed voraciously on small ground fauna, including insects, spiders, lizards, frogs, birds and mammals. Could displace or eliminate some native species.
  • Eat and damage seeds, possibly causing major ecosystem changes over time.

​Economic

  • Fire ant mounds can be serious problem in lawns, sporting fields and golf courses.
  • Damage sensitive electrical equipment.
  • Affect tourism industry and export of items to fire-ant-free countries.
  • Significantly affect agriculture industry. More than 50 agricultural and horticultural crops, as well as turf and nursery species, are affected by fire ants. All are grown in Australia, in areas that fire ants could inhabit.
  • Attack young animals, stinging around eyes, mouth and nose, leading to blindness and suffocation.
  • Prevent animals from reaching food or water without being seriously stung, leading to starvation and dehydration.
  • Can damage and kill some plants by tunnelling through roots and stems.
  • Protect some pest insect species that produce 'honeydew', downgrading quality of produce and helping to spread disease.
  • Feed on important biological control agents, interfering with integrated pest management practices.
  • Mounds can destroy equipment, such as irrigation systems, and damage machinery during harvesting operations.

Social

  • Restrict everyday activities such as picnics and sporting activities as backyards backyards, parks, school playgrounds and sports grounds are unusable.

RIFA safety and first aid advice

Always safety first if you come across an ant nest. Don’t stand on the nest or disturb it as ants may aggressively defend it. Only take photos if safe to do so.You should take the following steps if stung:

  • If the ants are still on you or your pet pick them off by hand. If you try and brush them off this will make them more aggressive, and if ants are sprayed with water, they may latch on with their jaws.
  • Apply a cold compress to alleviate swelling and pain.
  • Carefully wash the affected area with soap and water.
  • Immediately seek medical attention if you are allergic to insect stings or have symptoms of allergy.

Fire ant stings can take up to 10 days to heal. If the blisters or pustules break, there is a risk they can get infected. If pain persists or blisters get infected, see your doctor. Infected stings may require antibiotics.

Visit HealthyWA for more information.

Frequently Asked Questions 

What is a red imported fire ant (RIFA)?

A red imported fire ant is a serious exotic pest that poses significant social, economic and environmental threats to Western Australia. It is native to South America and is known to be highly aggressive and invasive and can inflict painful stings on people, pets and livestock.

How did it get here?

Results from genetic testing indicate the ant detection in WA was most likely introduced from overseas and is not linked to the Queensland detections. It is possible they arrived on a shipping container or on earth moving machinery and equipment.

Where have they been found?

RIFA were detected during specific targeted surveillance by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) on two adjoining properties at Fremantle Ports. It appears that the detection is localised to the initial detection site. An established red imported fire ant nest was found on the site.

How do I tell if ants are red imported fire ant?

Red imported fire ants are small (2-8mm), reddish-brown in colour, with a darker abdomen. There can be many different sized ants in one nest. They are usually aggressive if disturbed and can inflict a painful, fiery sting. Fire ant nests often look like disturbed soil or a small mound of soil with no visible entry holes. Nests may be in open areas or under logs, rocks or garden materials. 

Where should I look?

Look around any areas of disturbed ground, pot plants, top soil, mulch, under landscaping materials such as logs or stones, in any untidy or overgrown areas, or near areas of permanent water (eg. dams, rivers or ponds).

Why are they a problem?

Fire ants are one of the world's worst invasive ant species. They pose a serious threat to our lifestyle, environment, economy and agriculture, as they can form supercolonies that spread rapidly, feeding on insects, small ground fauna and crops. They also extremely aggressive and cause painful stings, which in some cases may cause anaphylactic allergic reactions. You can read more on their impacts here.

Does it affect me if I don't live near Fremantle?

Yes. It is everyone's responsibility to stop potential spread and help eradicate red imported fire ants, as they are highly invasive and could potentially spread across the State. You can help by adhering to the Fremantle Quarantine Area rules, and keeping a look out for suspicious ants. The best protection is vigilance.

Can I treat an infestation myself?

No. Do not disturb a suspected red imported fire ant nest, as they are often highly aggressive and may swarm if disturbed. If you suspect red imported fire ant contact DPIRD IMMEDIATELY.

What should I do if I get stung?

Refer here for first aid advice. Apply ice to relieve the swelling and pain. Gently wash the area with soap and water and leave any blisters intact. People who experience an allergic reaction after an insect sting should seek medical attention immediately.

What do I do if I suspect red imported fire ant?

LOOK AND REPORT! Report any unfamiliar ants immediately – even if unsure.

Do not disturb ants as they may aggressively defend the nest. Do not send in live ants. Take a photo if safe to do so. 

Contact the department via:

What has been done to control RIFA in WA?

All known RIFA infestations have now been treated with baiting and direct soil injection. Eradication efforts are being undertaken in conjunction with the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.

A Quarantine Area is in place, covering a two kilometre radius from the detection site, to assist with crucial surveillance access requirements, and limit movements of high-risk materials that could contain ants, such as soil.

DPIRD is conducting extensive surveillance of all suitable habitat within the Quarantine Area.

Are there any restrictions or controls in place?

A Quarantine Area is in place, covering a 2km radius from the detection site, to assist with crucial surveillance access requirements and limit movements of high-risk materials that could contain ants, such as soil. Within this area is a Treatment Area where ongoing treatement will be required (500m radius from the detection site), and a Buffer Zone restricting entry into the immediate vacinity of the detection site. 

What are restricted items?

The Quarantine Area notice limits the movement of high-risk materials out of the Quarantine Area that could potentially host and spread red imported fire ants. Restricted items include:

  • Pot plants
  • Grass
  • Hay and straw
  • Manure
  • Organic plant mulch
  • Soil, potting mix, pebbles and gravel
  • Turf
  • Wood chips
  • Earth moving equipment and machinery
  • Shipping containers

Who can I contact for more information on the controls?

Refer to these web pages or contact the department’s Pest and Disease Information Service on (08) 9368 3080 or padis@dpird.wa.gov.au

How do RIFA spread?

RIFA can spread naturally through flight, and by assisted spread such as movement of infested materials. Fire ant nests can have a single queen or multiple queens. A new queen will lay up to 20 eggs initially. Eggs hatch in 7-10 days and become adults after 9-15 days. A queen can increase laying capacity up to 800 eggs per day after the initial hatching.

What can I do to help prevent the spread of fire ants?

Report suspected red imported fire ant immediately and adhere to all restrictions and controls.

Frequently Asked Questions for business

Movement permits

When is a movement permit required?

A movement permit is required to move host materials to areas outside of the Quarantine Area (QA) (2km) if they have been in the QA for more than 5 days, and:

  • are used for commercial purposes or
  • are used for domestic purposes and have not been treated in accordance with the Quarantine Area Notice (QAN).

Why do the restrictions only apply to host material that has been in the QA for more than 5 days?

When RIFA was discovered in Port Botany in NSW in 2014, it was determined that ants are unlikely to build nests and become establish within 5 days, and so the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) has used this as a benchmark. The 5 day rule also allows most day to day business activities to continue.

How do I apply for a movement permit?

Contact our Pest and Disease Information Service on 9368 3080, who will refer you to our Tracing Officer. Provide details of your request, and if possible photographs to help DPIRD better understand your situation.

How do you make a decision on whether to approve a movement permit?

The decision to issue a movement permit, and whether inspection or conditions on movement are required, will be determined on a case by case basis. Decisions will be based on the level of risk of RIFA being spread through movement of host material.

Movement permit conditions may include physical inspection, chemical/ heat treatment, clean-down procedures, or covered transport to a waste management facility for deep burial. DPIRD will take into account the need to minimise disruption to business operations.

Do I receive the movement permit before or after treatment?

The boundaries are currently in place for an initial 6 month period (expiring 3 May 2020). It is highly likely they will be extended for a further 6 month period. If there are further detections outside of the original detection site, the QA boundaries and time frame will be extended.

How was the QA boundary determined?

The boundaries of the Treatment Area (500m) and QA (2km) were based on flight distances undertaken by RIFA queens. They are the same boundaries used in a similar RIFA outbreak at Port Botany, NSW.

Will this boundary be amended after biosecurity inspections of the QA?

The boundaries will remain in place for an initial six month period (expiring 3 May 2020). It will be reviewed if there are further detections outside of the original detection site, in which case the QA will be extended.

Inspection and treatment options

Can approval to move host material out of the QA be given through an inspection instead of treatment?

Conditions for movement are decided on a case by case basis, depending on the risk of RIFA spread should host material be moved without treatment. Contact the DPIRD Tracing Officer for further details (call 9368 3080).

Do physical inspections need to be carried out by DPIRD?

DPIRD will determine on a case by case basis whether inspection is required to be undertaken by DPRID personnel, by the particular business or the Fremantle Port Authority.

How do we ‘treat’ host material so it can be moved out of the QA?

There are a number of processes to treat host material to ensure it is free of RIFA. This includes chemical treatment, heat treatment, fumigation or re-potting. If treatment is necessary, DPIRD will provide advice on the most appropriate option for your circumstances when replying to your application for a movement permit.

Below are the easiest treatment options:

  • Create a pile of the material less than 50cm high and fumigate using methyl bromide; or
  • Add plant material to a machine such as a cement mixer and mix in insecticide through the mix using Bifenthrin at 80g/L bifenthrin or Cyfluthrin using 12.5g/L cyfluthrin.

Other options are described in the Quarantine Area Notice, which can be downloaded from agric.wa.gov.au/rifa. Keep in mind these options may not be realistically available and the most cost effective and sensible solution is deep burial at an approved waste management facility.

How do I organise treatment, if required?

Treatment can be carried out by a registered Pest Control Agent.

Can host material be moved to a waste management area for deep burial as an alternative to treatment?

Yes, but only with a movement permit.

Movement conditions

Can I move pot plants from the QA?

Pot plants can be moved if they have been inside the QA for less than 5 days. If not, a movement permit is required which may be subject to inspection, chemical treatment, re-potting or movement to a waste management facility with covered transport for deep burial.

When re-potting, the old soil cannot be taken out of the QA without a movement permit. Alternatively it can be kept onsite or incorporated into an onsite garden bed or composted.

Can I sell pot plants if I am in the QA?

Yes. It is not illegal to sell potted plants, however it is an offence to move these items out of the QA without a movement permit. DIPRD would encourage you to advise your buyers of the QA restrictions, and provide an information pamphlet with each purchase. Call 9368 3080 if you would like pamphlets to be delivered to your business.

Can I sell host materials such as mulch, turf, woodchips, soil and gravel if I am in the QA?

Yes. It is not illegal to sell potted plants, however it is an offence to move these items out of the QA without a movement permit. DIPRD would encourage you to advise your buyers of the QA restrictions, and provide an information pamphlet with each purchase. Call 9368 3080 if you would like pamphlets to be delivered to your business.

Can I move host materials that have been dug up, such as turf, and then stored for less than 5 days in the QA?

No. A movement permit is required as the turf would have been in the QA for more than 5 days, prior to its removal from the ground. Movement permits may be subject to conditions such as chemical or heat treatment, fumigation or covered transport to a waste management facility for deep burial.

Can I move soil and mulch from the QA?

If soil or mulch has been on your premises for more than 5 days a movement permit is required. Permits are considered on a case by case basis, and may be subject to conditions such as chemical or heat treatment, fumigation or covered transport to a waste management facility for deep burial.

If you only have a small amount of soil, the easiest option would be to keep it onsite, or incorporate the soil into a garden bed or in compost that is kept onsite.

Can I move grass clippings from the QA?

If grass clippings have been stored in the QA for more than 5 days, a movement permit is required. Permits may be subject to conditions such as chemical or heat treatment, fumigation or covered transport to a waste management facility for deep burial. It is recommended that lawn clippings stored in the QA for more than 5 days are kept off the ground, to avoid RIFA infestation.

Can I move my green waste such as pruned plant branches from the QA?

This waste is not considered to be host material as it is above the ground, and can be moved without restriction.

Can I move my green waste such as tree roots from the QA?

Any material that is sourced from below the ground such as tree roots is considered high risk due to the presence of soil, and most likely would have been in the QA more than 5 days prior to their removal. Therefore, a movement permit is required. Permits may be subject to conditions such as chemical or heat treatment, fumigation or covered transport to a waste management facility for deep burial.

Can I move building rubble that has dirt on it from being on the ground from the QA?

The best option is to use a high pressure cleaner to wash any dirt off the building rubble. This will ensure there is no high risk material remaining, and that you can move the rubble to any rubbish disposal site as per normal businesses activities

Where fodder is stored within the QA for a long period, are there management practices that can eliminate movement restrictions?

The 5 day rule applies, irrespective of management. Fodder such as hay, which is a RIFA host, cannot be moved without a movement permit, however pelletised fodder is not a host and does not require a permit. If the fodder is exported, then movement restrictions don’t apply.

Can gravel and soil resulting from road works that has been ‘stored’ for less than 5 days in the QA be moved without a permit.

A movement permit is required as these materials would have been in the QA for more than 5 days. These materials should not be stockpiled and moved out of the QA as soon as possible to minimise the risk of RIFA infestation. If stored, it is recommended that an area be designated for all soil/ vegetation material, so it can be easily inspected if needed.

Are road sweepings from berth cleans considered to be RIFA host material?

Yes. The sweepings may include RIFA host material such as soil and grass and is subject to movement restrictions if it has been in the QA for more 5 days.

Can sweepings from livestock berths (mix of manure, faeces, hay and spoilt fodder) be exempted from a movement permit?

Movement permits for this material are not required, as it is removed from the QA daily to an approved premise.

Is soil removed under sealed asphalt considered to be host material?

Yes.

Does the 5 day rule apply if host material or equipment is stored at one location for 3 days, and then at another for 3 days (less than 5 days at each location)?

Yes. If both locations are within the QA, it means the host material has been inside the QA for more than 5 days.

Can I move host material from the QA if going direct to a waste management facility?

Yes, although a movement permit is required, which will be subject to the below conditions:

Providing the date that you will seek to move the host material.

Providing the name and location of the waste management facility.

Host material must be tarped or in enclosed transport on route to ensure that no material can escape.

Upon arrival the material is required to be deep buried to 2m.

You will need to speak to the waste management facility about days/ times to ensure they are aware you are moving the host material and that the host material can be covered for disposal upon arrival.

There will be a fee to deep bury as well as a fee for each ton of host material.

Can I bring host material into the QA, such as plants and soil needed for landscaping?

Yes. But once it is inside the QA it cannot be removed if it stays in the area for more than 5 days, unless you are issued with a movement permit. Permits may be subject to conditions such as chemical or heat treatment, fumigation or covered transport to a waste management facility for deep burial.

Can gravel or ‘spoil’ resulting from road works that has been ‘stored’ for less than 5 days, following the road works, be moved without a permit.

Spoil can be removed without a movement permit so long as it is removed within 5 days and is free from host materials.. Spoil should not be stockpiled and should be moved out of the QA as soon as possible to minimise the risk of RIFA infestation. If stored, it is recommended that an area be designated for all soil/ vegetation material, so it can be easily inspected if needed.

Machinery and equipment

Can I move my equipment and machinery needed for gardening and landscaping in and out of the QA as required?

Equipment and machinery that has been in contact with host material (soil, grass, mulch etc.) must be cleaned before being moved out of the QA, irrespective of how long it has been in the QA.

If left inside the QA for more than 5 days a movement permit is required.

Is a movement permit required for equipment and sweeper trucks that have been used for roadworks, sweeping, and demolition, if they have not been in the QA for more than 5 days?

Equipment and vehicles that have been in contact with host material (soil, grass, mulch etc.) must be cleaned before being moved out of the QA, irrespective of how long it has been in the QA.

How do I clean equipment and machinery?

Cleaning must remove any soil or host material (bark, mulch etc.) by:

  • High pressure wash down.
  • Blow down with an air compressor.
  • Brush down with a broom/dust pan and brush

Instructions on inspecting machinery can be found on the DPIRD website.

Can equipment /machinery not used for earthworks be moved without a permit?

Yes. The Quarantine Area Notice defines RIFA machinery as: any vehicle, equipment or other mechanical apparatus of any kind that has been used in relation to agriculture, earthmoving, excavation or for otherwise moving or disturbing soil.

Do restrictions on machinery apply to hand used equipment?

Yes.

Shipping containters

Do movement restrictions apply to shipping containers?

No. Movement of shipping containers does not require a movement permit. The only requirement is they must be free from RIFA host material. Practically this means that the container needs to be inspected by the owner/ operator and found to be free of host material prior to movement. If host material such as soil is found on the container, it must be cleaned / removed prior to transport.

Do shipping containers need to be inspected and cleaned if they have been in the QA for less than 5 days?

Yes. Containers must be clean, irrespective of how many days they have been within the QA. This good biosecurity practice also helps to prevent the spread of other pests and diseases.

Are there instructions on how to inspect and clean containers?

The interior, exterior and locking mechanisms of containers must be inspected. It is also recommended that truck drivers inspect containers once they are placed on trailers as this allows for a better view of the underside and container edges. The only exception is for containers that are being re-exported without being moved out of the QA.

Clean down procedures include physically removing any soil or host material (bark, mulch etc.) by:

  • high pressure wash down, or
  • blow down with an air compressor, or
  • brush down with a broom/dust pan and brush.

Who is responsible for inspecting containers?

The transport company or the truck driver.

Some drivers or port workers don’t have time to inspect and clean containers. What happens if they don’t?

The requirement for containers to be free of RIFA material is a requirement under the Quarantine Area Notice issued under regulation 60 of the Biosecurity and Agriculture Management Regulations 2013. Failure to comply with this Quarantine Area Notice could result in a fine, the DPIRD Director General taking remedial action under regulation 133 of the Biosecurity and Agriculture Management Regulations 2013, or both.

Can low risk containers, such as sealed containers originating from empty container parks in the QA, be exempted from inspection and cleaning?

No. Inspection and cleaning is a requirement under the Quarantine Area Notice.

Are there are restrictions on the export of containers from Fremantle?

There are no specific export conditions for red imported fire ant, but as a general rule, to reduce biosecurity risks a container should be free from pests and diseases.