The Hawaii Ant Lab was cut off from the majority of its funds in 2021. This year, the Legislature gave it $500,000.

Little fire ants are spreading across the state, damaging crops, blinding animals and falling from trees on people, causing painful stings that turn into long-lasting rashes, hives or worse.

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The Hawaii Ant Lab — based at the University of Hawaii Manoa and funded by various government agencies, including the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the U.S. Forest Service — is the state’s primary team for managing and eradicating the ants.

The recently passed Senate Bill 1552, which still needs the governor’s signature, appropriates another $500,000 through the Department of Land and Natural Resources to combat the little fire ant problem for the next two years. 

“I visited several farms on Hawaii island in 2021 and met with the folks who run the Hawaii Ant Lab,” said Sen. Mike Gabbard, introducer of the bill and chair of the Senate’s Agriculture and Environment Committee. “I got to see and hear first-hand the value they provide, and the threat they, and our state, were facing due to looming budget cuts.” 

The ant lab was cut off from the majority of its funds in 2021.

A family pet displays the effects of getting stung by little fire ants, which can cause blindness. (Courtesy: Fanny Brewer)

The Hawaii Invasive Species Council and the Agriculture Department stopped paying due to wider budget cuts and the repeal of the Agricultural Development and Food Security Special Fund

“The reduction in funding led to staff having to work part-time for parts of 2021 and 2022 despite the rising spread of Little Fire Ants,” Gabbard said in a written statement.

The funding may be too little, too late for efforts to eradicate fire ants in the islands.

“The time when eradication was possible has long passed, and the state of Hawai‘i is left with a problem that will continue to spread,” Casper Vanderwoude, founder of Hawaii Ant Lab, wrote in public testimony about this bill.

Instead, he advocates for the importance of minimizing the damage. 

“The funds in this appropriation will be used primarily to manage the economic, social and environmental damages that this species can cause,” Vanderwoude wrote, “and provide the public with training, advice and methodologies to minimize these impacts.”

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A study by University of Hawaii economists found that increasing management funds now could lead to the decrease of management costs, economic damages stings in the long run. The benefits include about $5 billion in reduced oversight costs and about 2 billion fewer cases related to human-related stings over the next 35 years. 

Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said in public testimony how farm workers regularly face hardships when ants fall and bite them. Livestock also get bit, especially in the eyes, which can blind them. 

Unlike tropical fire ants, these fire ants can nest in various places including vegetation above ground. With just a small bump they easily fall on a person or animal passing by, according to the Big Island Invasive Species Committee. Although they may be small, they spread fast, have no natural predators and multiple queens reside in their colonies, making them resistant to eradication efforts.

The Ant Lab research team also found that the ants support plant pests such as whiteflies, by guarding them for the honeydew they excrete.

“We are pleased that the Legislature had prioritized Little Fire Ants,” Miyamoto said, “along with many other invasive species of pests that they did fund this year.” 

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