Residents can no longer wait to protect Hawaii from an invader threatening our health, environment and livelihoods.
That’s according to experts working to control one of the world’s worst invasive species: little fire ants. The orange critters (Wasmannia auropunctata) are tiny and slow, but they pack one helluva punch.
“If you ever talked to anyone who’s been stung in the eye, it’s the most miserable experience in recorded history,” said Franny Brewer, spokeswoman for the Big Island Invasive Species Committee.
Ranked by the Invasive Species Specialist Group as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species, little fire ants inflict painful stings that cause intense burning and lasting welts. They also can blind pets and other animals.
“Right now there are populations on all the main islands … that have become established,” said Heather Forester, extension specialist for the Hilo-based Hawaii Ant Lab, which receives funding from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.
Molokai is the only island without them, she said.
Little fire ants were discovered in 1999 in Hawaiian Paradise Park, a booming Big Island subdivision along the Puna coast. They showed up on Kauai that same year. In 2009, they were detected on an organic farm on Maui, while the first Oahu infestation occurred in 2014.
The ants live in foliage like cut flowers, and are good hitchhikers.
“It’s people that are moving them around,” Forester said.
The unsuspecting enablers must become eradicators. “People need to be diligent as to controlling them,” Forester said. “It’s a personal responsibility.”
Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened on Hawaii Island.
“Every district of the Big Island has positive detectors of little fire ants,” Brewer said. “On the east side, it’s really bad.”
Windward areas have a moist climate and tropical rainforests where the pests thrive.
Little fire ants are attracted to sources of protein like animal food. Dogs and cats can get stung when they put their faces into bowls filled with ants, sometimes resulting in blindness.
Businesswoman Barbara Garcia discovered little fire ants on each of the four Hilo residential properties she’s rented during the past two years.
“The first I noticed it was when I got stung,” she said. “It was really painful. That was my first wake-up call.”
Unable to convince her landlords to pay for the treatments needed to remove the little fire ants, Garcia said she’s had to absorb that cost and effort.
“It’s a terrible situation. I think the landlords are in denial about it until they have to deal with it.”
Garcia hired Suzanne Barrett Baca, who co-founded Fire Ants Hawaii in July 2015 after detecting them in her two Puna nurseries. Now serving more than 200 clients in East Hawaii, Baca about a month ago expanded to West Hawaii thinking she was being preemptive; within 10 days she had 18 clients under contract.
“There could be a hundred companies like us, and it wouldn’t be enough,” Baca said. “What we are seeing in the field is the areas of infestation are increasing exponentially. It’s really getting out of hand.”
Depending on the amount of ants and vegetation on their property, landowners can face costs ranging from $600 to $2,000 per acre to remove them, Baca said.
Those prices are a bargain compared to the financial damage little fire ants could inflict on one of Hawaii’s main industries.
“What we are seeing in the field is the areas of infestation are increasing exponentially. It’s really getting out of hand.” — Suzanne Barrett Baca
Left unchecked, little fire ants’ financial threat to Hawaii Island is estimated to reach nearly $200 million a year, according to a February 2015 report by the Hawaii Invasive Species Council
That’s because the ants cause crop loss and leave remaining fields unworkable. Feeding off plants’ nectar, they “farm” white flies and other pests that eat vegetation, spreading plant disease and reducing flowering, said Forester.
They also tend to fight off predators seeking to feed on the pests.
Baca said she’s seen the impact on her farms.
“They are wiping out our native population of insects,” she said, adding bird and turtle hatchlings also are at risk.
And there’s the challenge of finding workers willing to risk the multiple stings that come with harvesting in an infested areas. The ants cannot hold on well, causing them to literally rain down when the vegetation they are on is bumped or blown by trade winds.
“We’ve have heard of cases where banana farmers had workers who would call in sick from fear of being stung,” Forester said.
She and other front-line fighters have mixed beliefs about the chances of controlling the ants.
“We are losing the battle,” said Baca, who feels everyone must become educated and active in undertaking control efforts.
Forester is confident their spread can be stopped, but only if public awareness is broadened. She noted an infestation on Lanai has not yet become established and the state has a good quarantine system to help reduce interisland movement.
“Everyone in the state needs to be diligent about invasive species if we want to have a chance (at controlling them),” she said.
Brewer said her goal is to have all landowners survey their property at least once a year – four times annually for Big Islanders. The typical test involves applying a thin coating of peanut butter to a chopstick, which is then left for an hour in a suspected invested area.
“That’s really up to the people of the state of Hawaii,” she said when asked if little fire ants will reach every community. “That’s not something I’d say is a foregone conclusion.”
Addition information about little fire ants can be found at stoptheant.org.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at email@example.com