An invasion of stinging fire ants with a taste for peanut butter and Spam and only as long as the thickness of a penny could be gaining a foothold on Maui, threatening the island's lifeblood visitor industry.
Yet, there has been little public response to a Dec. 31 report from the state Department of Agriculture that colonies of the ants have apparently hitchhiked from the Big Island to Maui and Oahu in a Dec. 11 shipment of Hawaiian tree ferns (hapuu) to garden shops.
An infestation of the ants was found at a Maui garden shop on Dec. 23. At least two stores and one shipping company were affected.
Efforts are underway to prevent the little fire ant from taking hold on Maui. The ant was discovered Dec. 23 at a garden shop on Maui.
Hawaii Department of Agriculture photo
Darcy Oishi, acting Plant Pest Quarantine Branch chief, said that the report of little fire ants being found on Maui and Oahu may have gotten overlooked because island residents were occupied with New Year's celebrations.
Agriculture Department officials have received only "a few reports" of possible ant infestations since the news broke at the end of last year.
"That's not anywhere near what we were hoping to get," he said. "It is frightening. . . . We really need to get engagement from the public that this is a serious issue."
Maui Invasive Species Committee public relations and education specialist Lissa Strohecker said that her group has done surveys at garden shops to check for the little fire ant but found nothing as of late last week.
"We haven't seen anything suspicious," she said.
Maui Invasive Species Committee's primary focus is to encourage people who've purchased hapuu to put it in a plastic garbage bag and take it to Agriculture Department officials, she said.
"Public awareness is the key to detecting it early," she said.
State officials want to isolate areas where the little fire ants might have been introduced to try to stop them from spreading, Oishi said.
The nightmare scenario is for the little fire ant to get well established, stinging visitors while they're sunbathing at the beach, hiking or visiting waterfalls. The ant also jeopardizes Hawaii's $88 billion agriculture industry, according to a Maui Invasive Species Committee website. Fruit orchards and coffee farms on the Big Island already have lost employees because of the stinging ants.
Maui Invasive Species Committee will show a film, "Invasion: Little Fire Ants in Hawaii," at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the McCoy Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. The half-hour film by Masako Cordray and Chris Reickert "examines the biology, impacts and potential solutions to the spread of little fire ants through interviews with scientists, farmers and community on the Big Island reeling from the impacts of this miniscule, but devastating, ant."
In 2009, an infestation of little fire ants was found on a farm in Waihee, but officials were apparently able to stop the ants there. Now, with the ants being carried in products in retail sales, "the ripple effects of this are quite profound," Oishi said. "It's magnifying the problem a hundred fold."
People are potentially buying products with ants in them, taking them home and perhaps giving them away, he said.
"The more you think about it, the more headaches you get," he said.
At one garden store on Maui where the little fire ants were found, state officials know 11 pieces of hapuu were sold, Oishi said last week. But state officials received calls from only four of the consumers who purchased them.
That means there's at least seven other pieces of hapuu that have not been found and may contain little fire ants, he said.
At least one other garden store sold the infected hapuu, but state officials are not sure how many sales were made from that store, Oishi said.
Because the ants are so small as to be almost invisible or indistinguishable from other, similar-looking ants, the invasion of the little fire ants is stealthy, he said.
"You could be carrying it around and spreading it. . . . You may never know," he said.
To check for the presence of little fire ants, Oishi suggests residents smear a little peanut butter on a chopstick (the ants also favor Spam, but it's more expensive) and put it near the base of a live fern or a suspect plant and leave it there for at least half an hour. By then, there likely will be a number of different ant species on the chopstick.
Then, seal the chopstick with the ants in a zip-lock bag and put it in the freezer for a day, he said. That kills the ants. Then, call the state Agriculture Department officials to check if some of the ants are little fire ants.
The phone number of the department's Plant Quarantine Branch in Kahului is 872-3848. The branch is open weekdays from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Maui Invasive Species Committee phone number is 573-6472.
There's no easy way for a layperson to determine if the ants are little fire ants because there's a couple other small ant species that also are orange, Oishi said.
The sealed bag should be accompanied by a piece of paper with contact information for the resident; where and when the sample of ants was taken; what plants were nearby; and any other significant information, such as whether someone has been stung by the ants, Oishi said.
The ants prefer moist, humid environments, such as windward areas like Haiku, he said. The ants would be unlikely to thrive in dry Kihei, although a well-watered lawn in South Maui would make a cozy habitat for them.
"They could be quite happy out there, and quite happy in a home, too," Oishi said. In homes, ants would favor a damp area, like a leaky faucet, he added.
If state officials locate an area infested with the ants, they would treat it with insecticide in granule or liquid forms, with the aim of killing the queen of the ant colony, he said.
The ant is described as being "slow moving," but that doesn't necessarily make it easier to control or kill, Oishi said. "It would be a great thing if it were so small. . . . Two colonies could live in (an area the size of) a golf ball."
The ants sting with formic acid when they're agitated, such as when they get caught between a person's neck and shirt collar, he said.
Considered one of the world's worst invasive species, the ant was discovered last month by a customer at a garden shop on Maui, officials said. The ant was reported to the Maui Invasive Species Committee, which sent specimens to department entomologists who confirmed the identification.
The pale orange ant originates from South America. It is only 1/16th of an inch long and moves slowly, unlike the tropical fire ant already established in Hawaii. Colonies can be found on the ground, trees and other vegetation and can "freely move into homes," the Agriculture Department said.
The invasive ants are attracted to moisture and will crawl into the eyes of animals and sting them after the animal reacts, Oishi said. There has been an increase in blind cats and dogs on the Big Island due to the ants.
The ants can deliver painful stings to humans, leaving large red welts on the skin.
The tiny ant was first detected in the state on the Big Island in 1999. Surveys determined that the ant was on the east side for several years before detection and was widely distributed in the Puna area, the department said.
For more information, visit hdoa.hawaii.gov/pi/files/2013/01/npa99-02-lfireant.pdf.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.