Lowe's Home Improvement and Home Depot were identified Thursday as stores to which hapuu, or Hawaiian tree ferns, were shipped with infestations of the non-native little fire ants that have government and environmental officials worried.
State officials also extended the ant watch period from last month to all of last year.
The pale orange ant, a native of South America, is only as large as a grain of sand, and two colonies with queens could be in a space as large as a golf ball. The ants' large numbers, the difficulty of detecting them and their aggressive behavior bring alarms of the possibility of the ants becoming established on Maui and Oahu. The ants have been on the Big Island since 1999.
The ants inflict painful stings on humans, blind pets and pose a threat to the islands' visitor and agriculture industries.
Comments from management at Lowe's and Home Depot were not immediately available Thursday afternoon.
Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said Thursday that the information identifying the stores came from state Department of Agriculture officials. According to the department, he said, the little fire ants discovered on Maui last month "were traced back to hapuu shipments at Lowe's and Home Depot on Maui."
Agriculture Department officials asked any Maui resident who purchased a fern from either store over the last 12 months to check the vicinity of their ferns for the ants.
"This is a serious matter," Mayor Alan Arakawa said. "These ants can wreak havoc on a community. Their stings can cause a lot of pain and even blind your pets if you are not careful. We need to help the Department of Agriculture to identify possible infestation sites so that they can contain the situation. We don't want another invasive species on our island if we can help it."
Previously, Agriculture Department officials did not disclose the garden shops where fire ants were discovered last month. They had said that the orange ants were on Hawaiian tree ferns shipped from the Big Island on Dec. 11.
The fire ants were initially reported to the Maui Invasive Species Committee on Dec. 23. Then, MISC reported the finding to agriculture officials who confirmed that the ants had been found on Maui. On Dec. 31, the department announced the spread of the ants from the Big Island to Maui and Oahu.
MISC Manager Teya Penniman said that she was concerned about identifying the stores because the action could lead to less cooperation between garden shops and authorities and because it could lull people into a false sense security if they believe that the threat comes only from importation of Hawaiian tree ferns.
"It's moving on other things as well," she said, noting that state inspectors have spotted the invasive stinging ants on shipments of other products from the Big Island. Someone moving from the Big Island to another island in Hawaii could unknowingly carry little fire ants on belongings or in vehicles, she said.
Also, island stores voluntarily allow authorities to inspect their properties for invasive species, she said. But if store managers believe their store will get negative publicity from such inspections, then they might not cooperate.
"It's not the fault of the store that they got it," Penniman said.
She had been on Oahu attending hearings at the state Capitol on Wednesday and Thursday, and the issue of invasive species came up during hearings on the state departments of Health and Land and Natural Resources.
Lawmakers expressed "very strong concern," she said.
What's vitally needed is improved interisland bio-security, she said.
"There's a desperate need for more support, more inspectors, better facilities," Penniman said. "We are failing collectively to have an adequate bio-security system."
At the state Capitol, Penniman said she learned that several legislators are considering introducing bills to impose more stringent inspection requirements for shipping items between islands, particularly propagative plants and cut flowers and foliage.
Central Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran said that he believes legislation to address the little fire ant invasion will be introduced this lawmaking session, which begins Wednesday.
Lawmakers are concerned about a lack of communication between state agencies, he said, pointing out that legislators learned that the state Department of Agriculture did not immediately share information about the discovery of the little fire ants on Maui and Oahu with other state agencies.
There also was concern about the Agriculture Department's reluctance to identify retailers who possibly sold plants infested with the ants, Keith-Agaran said.
"We'll be looking at ways to address those issues," he said.
Keith-Agaran said that because it's known that there's a greater risk of invasive species moving between islands on shipments of plant materials, then "maybe we've come to the point where we need to make sure they're doing a lot more inspections of materials."
It may not be as simple as hiring more agriculture inspectors, but rather deploying them in the best way possible, he said.
As far as whether there's any possibility of quarantining materials shipped from areas known to be infested with little fire ants on the Big Island, Keith-Agaran said "that would be one of the drastic measures that would be considered."
But "I'm not sure there's going to be enough support in the Legislature to take that kind of action," he said.
Penniman called it "absolutely critical" to have more Agriculture Department inspectors. She said that she thought Maui has eight, but that number was put at seven inspectors by an official answering the Maui Plant Quarantine Branch office phone Thursday afternoon.
Another option would be to acquire dogs trained to sniff out little fire ants, she said. Such dogs have been having success in rooting out the ants in Australia.
A dog will be "able to find it every time," she said. "There's no way humans have that ability."
MISC has eight to 10 volunteers who have been doing surveys for little fire ants at garden shops and plant nurseries, said Lissa Strohecker, the group's public relations and education specialist.
"We've devoted all our crews to the little fire ant," she said.
As of Thursday morning, MISC crews had not found evidence of more little fire ants, she said.
An educational video about little fire ants has been posted online at lfa-hawaii.org.
To check for the presence of little fire ants, residents can smear a little peanut butter on a chopstick and put it near the base of a live fern or other suspect plant. Leave it there for at least half an hour. By then, there should be a number of different ant species on it.
Put the chopstick in a zip-lock bag and put it in the freezer for a day. The freezing kills the ants.
Antone said that residents should then call Agriculture Department officials who will send an inspector to their residence to investigate further and, if necessary, treat the area to get rid of the ants.
"We need people to identify themselves and do these tests," Antone said.
When asked about expanding the period of time of the possible shipment of the invasive species from only last month to the last 12 months, Antone said that he believed officials were being cautious.
"They want to play it safe," he said.
Little fire ants are only one-16th of an inch long and should not be confused with the larger tropical fire ant, which also stings and has already established itself on Maui.
The phone number of the Agriculture Department's Plant Quarantine Branch in Kahului is 872-3848. The office is open weekdays from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Maui Invasive Species Committee phone number is 573-6472.
Officials caution that there's no easy way for a layperson to tell the difference between little fire ants and other species that are orange.
Maui County Environmental Coordinator Rob Parsons said it's important for everyone to be on the lookout for the ants.
"We really need to enlist everybody's help," he said. "We're at an early stage where outreach and education are so important."
The invasive ants are attracted to moisture and will crawl into the eyes of animals and sting them after the animal reacts. There has been an increase in blind cats and dogs on the Big Island due to the ants.
For humans, the ants can produce painful stings and large red welts on the skin.
First detected on the Big Island in 1999, surveys determined that the ant was on the east side for several years before it was discovered and was widely distributed in the Puna area.
Little fire ants have reached Maui in years past, as they did in October 2009 at a Waihee farm. However, eradication efforts there appeared to have been successful.
For more information on the little fire ant and its history in Hawaii, visit hdoa.hawaii.gov/pi/files/2013/01/npa99-02-lfireant.pdf.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.