Invasion of the little fire ants: Emergency meeting addresses growing problem in Hawi, presents solutions

  • Frank Hustace shows the audience the newest location where little fire ants have been found in Hawi at an emergency residents meeting last Wednesday. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Frank Hustace shows the audience the newest location where little fire ants have been found in Hawi at an emergency residents meeting last Wednesday. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Heather Forest from Hawaii Ant Lab. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Heather Forest from Hawaii Ant Lab. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

HAWI — Being stung by a little fire ant (LFA) can be painful, burning as long as 30 minutes. Unfortunately, the invasive stinging pests have become more prevalent in Hawi.

“A new infestation could be between 20-30 acres, about a mile from the center of Hawi,” said local resident Frank Hustace, who organized an emergency town meeting at Kohala Village HUB Wednesday night attended by more than 160 residents.

“When I learned of the problem I became very concerned. It’s believed the site of the original location took five years to grow to the current extent,” he added.

The purpose of the meeting was to educate residents on how to protect their properties and combat LFA if needed.

“The first step to determine if you have LFA is to conduct a survey and submit samples to the Hawaii Ant Lab (HAL) for identification,” said Heather Forester, an invasive ants extension specialist from the organization, who led the meeting. “People can live with them for several years before realizing it. You may not notice them until you’re stung by them.”

HAL is a project of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit at UH-Manoa.

LFA have been reported from scattered pockets of North Kohala for several years, but are now concentrated in three specific areas: Keokea Beach Park and Makapala in Kapaau, and a more recent location bounded by Hoea Road, Hawi Road and Leikolu Road into Lipoa Gulch, not far from downtown Hawi.

In her presentation, Forester explained how to identify the pests, their nesting habits, colony structure, survey methods and where to send samples for HAL to analyze.

“A test kit is the first step to determine if you have little fire ants,” she said. “Samples collected can be submitted to the Hawaii Ant Lab. Our trained staff then use a dissecting microscope in our lab to identify them.”

More than 100 LFA test kits were distributed to attendees at the meeting. Forester added that they can also easily be made at home using wooden Popsicle sticks, peanut butter and several other ingredients.

To prevent LFA from entering a house, she suggested creating a barrier of a granular pesticide around the perimeter and baits around the rest of the property. The baits draw the pests and must be set every four to six weeks over a 12-month period to be effective.

“We recommend using baits that are target specific,” she said. “The LFA can be found on the ground, in gardens and trees. Baits are an attractive food source for the ant that they feed off of, take back to the nest and share with the colony – most importantly the queen.”

Multiple queens in individual colonies can lay seven eggs daily, year-round. Pineapple tops, banana trees and composting materials are likely hangouts.

“Once the queen hasn’t been fed by the workers, she has to go out and forage for food, and dies a tragic death of starvation,” Forester said.

Gel baits can be used in trees.

“Tango is a good option because it’s non-toxic,” she said. “It can be used on edible crops and is as close to organic as possible.”

First discovered on the Big Island in 1999 in lower Puna, it is believed that LFA in Hawaii came from Florida, where genetically identical pests exist.

In North Kohala, landowners generally live on larger acreage than in other parts of the island. Hustace resides at Kuuhome Ranch, a 14-acre property where he raises alpaca. It’s within a quarter mile of where the newest infestation is based.

“The biggest problem is often getting people to detect them,” Forester said. “Hawaii Ant Lab is here for management support.”

To treat stings, oral or topical antihistamine are recommended. Other homemade options to dry out the stings are vinegar, rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer or aloe.

“I would use Benadryl,” said Dr. Alan Thal from the crowd. “100 mg will neutralize a centipede. But there are other less conventional treatments that do work.”

Local resident Dot McCorriston thinks the problem would best be combated through new legislation.

“My niece got a little fire ant bite in Florida and had to go to the hospital,” she said. “I think the best thing is to nip the problem in the bud and change our quarantine laws. Why can pots of stuff be shipped over here from the mainland? After all, we’ve never been allowed to take dirt or oranges from Hawaii there.”

Forester responded, “The Hawaii Ant Lab’s goal is to help people with the resources we have available now, but I do understand the bigger picture. Talk to your legislative officials.”

Cab Baber, Kohala chapter president of Hawaii Farmers Union United, is hopeful LFA can be eradicated from the area.

“Here in Kohala we are a very proactive community,” he said. “It’s important that we get on this now. We feel empowered. Look at the turnout tonight. We thought we’d have 20 people and we had 160. I’m encouraged from what I’ve heard about the baits. As long as we starve out the workers and the queen, and use other methods, I don’t think (the problem) is unsurmountable.”

As a next step, Hustace hopes to unite local forces, and is currently drafting a proposal for the North Kohala Community Resource Center to consider supporting the effort. He also plans to create stations around town where residents can pick up kits to test LFA on their properties, and a slot where they can be dropped to be mailed back to HAL.

“Don’t despair,” he said in his closing remarks. “There’s help here for us now. It seems daunting, but there is a movement to create a privately funded rapid response team that can take areas of infestation and make a difference. What we need is for you to test your land so HAL can begin mapping out areas of infestation that will give us the best chance of nailing this before it gets out of hand.”


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