Taking control

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Haiku residents Adam Radford (left) and Brooke Mahnken are on the hunt for the invasive plants and animals that threaten our environment, economy and quality of life. Maui Invasive Species Committee / BRYAN BERKOWITZ photo

It could be a scene in a horror film: Hordes of tiny, stinging insects — no bigger than the diameter of a pinhead — stealthily carve a path of destruction through an unsuspecting neighborhood.

But this isn’t a movie. The threat of Wasmannia auropunctata, better known as the little fire ant, is all-too real — and a force to be reckoned with. Since the invasive ant species was discovered on Hawaii island in 1999, infestations have cropped up in homes, backyards, gardens, farms, parks and forests across the state. Native to Central and South America, these highly adaptive insects likely made their way to Hawaii as stowaways on imported plants.

On Maui, there are seven infestation sites (the first of which was detected in 2009) now actively managed by the Maui Invasive Species Committee, a project of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit. The committee is made up of resource managers from private organizations, nonprofits and all three levels of government.

Over the years, MISC has covered a lot of ground, working tirelessly to protect our environment, economy and quality of life by targeting the most threatening invasive plants and animals — those that are feasible to control or eradicate based on their distribution, as well as available resources. Among the pest species on the committee’s “most wanted” list are coqui frogs, miconia, blessed milk thistle, pampas grass, mullein, ivy gourd, fountain grass and little fire ants.

Adam Radford, manager of MISC, and Brooke Mahnken, MISC’s little fire ant coordinator, have seen the devastating impacts of high-threat invaders firsthand. As manager, Radford keeps a close eye on all field and outreach activities on Maui; he also provides administrative oversight for the Molokai Invasive Species Committee. The Wisconsin native joined the MISC team as a temporary employee in 2004 and quickly rose through the ranks, stepping into the role of operations manager in 2010, and taking the helm as manager six years later. Apart from tackling some of Maui’s most vexing invasive species challenges, he also developed an invasive species inventory strategy for the Republic of Palau’s protected area network.

Mahnken, who hails from Washington state, landed a spot on MISC’s plant field crew in 2005, and two years later took on the role of operations and GIS (geographic information system) specialist. In 2016, he became MISC’s little fire ant coordinator — and he’s had the six-legged intruders in his crosshairs ever since.

As applied researchers, neither Radford nor Mahnken is firmly tethered to a computer or laboratory microscope. In any given week, you might find them wielding handheld GIS mapping devices as they bushwhack through uninhabited regions accessible only by helicopter. When they’re not dangling from cliffs (Radford, a rappel master, routinely teaches conservation workers proper rappelling techniques) or launching strategic counterattacks against insidious flora or fauna, the two men are making the rounds, meeting with property owners, school groups, government officials and members of the scientific and conservation communities.

And, they’d like to meet with you too.

MISC will pay a visit to your property to determine the presence or absence of an invasive species; there is no cost for the service. If the thought of someone surveying your backyard gives you pause, keep in mind they are there for one reason only.

“Our goal is to protect the environment,” Radford explained. “We are not law enforcement and we aren’t looking for anything illegal . . . just the invasive species.”

Radford and Mahnken also encourage residents to report any suspicious-looking or out-of-the-ordinary plant, bug, reptile, amphibian, bird or mammal — even if it seems benign, there’s no harm in taking a closer look.

“It’s never a waste of time,” Radford said. “We can’t be everywhere at once, so the community is our greatest partner. They are our eyes and ears.”

As for the little fire ants, Mahnken says there’s one thing they can’t resist. “They love peanut butter,” he said. To rule out the presence of little fire ants on your property, smear a thin layer of peanut butter on a coffee stirrer or chopstick, leave it out where the ants might be, and if any take the bait, carefully place it into a Ziploc baggie and freeze it overnight. Then, contact MISC — a simple phone call or email could help contain or eradicate an infestation.

Mahnken is quick to point out that this is not your garden-variety pest. Unlike most of their counterparts, little fire ants nest on the ground and in trees, have multiple queens, and build super colonies that can grow indefinitely. The threat to Hawaii cannot be overstated: If left unchecked, mind-bogglingly large infestations could decimate acres of land, imperil endangered plants and animals, negatively impact human health and pose significant economic burdens. Not to mention, a little fire ant bite is quite painful (often leaving raised welts that burn or itch for several days) and can cause blindness in pets.

MISC has seen its fair share of tangible successes over the years, and Radford and Mahnken hope to see that streak continue.

“We care deeply about the work we do,” Mahnken said. “And we will keep fighting to protect Maui.”

MISC relies on county, state and federal grants, as well as private donations, to keep its critically important projects up and running — and moving as quickly as possible. To make a donation, visit www.uhfoundation.org/GiveToMisc. To report a pest or to inquire about volunteer or internship opportunities, call 573-6472 or visit www.mauiinvasive.org.

For more information about little fire ants in Hawaii, call the Hawaii Ant Lab at (808) 315-5656, email info@littlefireants.com or visit www.little fireants.com. Headquartered in Hilo, the Hawaii Ant Lab has developed innovative little fire ant control methods and is assisting management efforts statewide. 

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.