Little fire ants infest 20 acres in Nahiku

A “disappointing find” of the dreaded little fire ant in at least 20 acres in a forested area in Nahiku does not mean that efforts will be turning toward control rather than eradication of the pest, said an official with the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

The state Department of Agriculture confirmed Friday that suspected ants, discovered by MISC crews clearing invasive miconia in the rugged East Maui area Sept. 18, were the stinging little fire ants, a threat to plants, residents, pets and the tourism industry.

After the MISC crew members were “repeatedly stung” by what they thought were the little fire ants, state agriculture officials gathered samples Thursday and entomologists on Maui and Oahu made the confirmation.

Preliminary surveys put the infested area at at least 20 acres along Hana Highway – the largest infestation by far reported on Maui.

“We don’t yet know how big the infestation is,” said MISC Manager Teya Penniman in a phone interview from the Mainland on Friday. Officials still are in the process of determining the extent of the infestation, she said.

The ants have “been there for a number of years” based on their density, said Penniman.

“This is a very disappointing find because it is in difficult terrain,” she said.

The landscape is “horrendous,” with irregular grades, dense vegetation and fallen old trees, where the ants live, she said. There also is a stream in the area that could be spreading the ant.

“With such a large, heavily infested area, the crews will have to develop treatment plans and activities appropriate to the area,” said Neil Reimer, administrator of the Agriculture Department’s Plant Industry Division. “The area appears to be rough terrain, so safety of the crews will also be considered.”

MISC, the Agriculture Department and the Hawaii Ant Lab are working on further surveys to better determine the area of infestation and to develop treatment plans for the site, an Agriculture Department news release said.

When asked if this large discovery means that efforts would change from eradication to controlling the pest – as on the Big Island, where the ant has taken hold – Penniman said no; the goal remains eradication.

“I am not ready to throw in the towel,” she said. “We are up to the challenge as long as we have the resources that we need.

“We will do everything we can . . . to get rid of the ant from Maui,” she said.

Penniman said MISC has been working with the ant lab, which is developing new treatment methods, and the landowners, who have been “very cooperative.”

Mayor Alan Arakawa said the discovery of the little fire ants was “alarming news,” and he called for immediate action. “We need to move, and we need to move now,” he said.

“This threat to our environment and community must be handled as we have done in the past, with a strong, coordinated rapid response,” he said. “The county will dedicate our available resources to help control this infestation as soon as humanly possible.”

The last reported infestation of the little fire ant was in July at the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort. A routine survey by MISC officials detected a small infestation at the hotel. MISC reported finding one little fire ant at a neighboring hotel. The landscaped areas are continuing to be treated and monitored.

Between the Wailea and the recent Nahiku reports, there have been two other Maui cases:

* In July, Maui Agriculture Department inspectors found the little fire ant on some of 51 hapuu logs from Keaau, Hawaii Island. The ants did not show up in bait-testing in Hilo and in bait traps on Maui. However, upon closer visual inspection, Maui inspectors saw what looked like the ant, which was confirmed by entomologists. The logs were frozen to kill the ants.

Inspectors traced two other shipments from the same source. They tested 100 logs and found the little fire ant on seven logs. Enhanced inspections at both departing and receiving ports have been established.

* In August, Maui Agriculture Department inspectors doing enhanced inspections found the little fire ant on specialty pineapple transported from Hawaii Island. The ants were difficult to detect in the crown of the pineapple. Agriculture Department inspectors continue to closely monitor similar shipments interisland.

Native to South America, the little fire ant is considered among the world’s worst invasive species, the Agriculture Department said. They are tiny, measuring 1/16th inch long, and are pale orange in color. Little fire ants can produce painful stings and large red welts and may cause blindness in pets.

They can build up very large colonies on the ground, in trees and other vegetation and in buildings and homes, and completely overrun a property.

The little fire ant has been on Hawaii Island since 1999. By the time it was identified, the ant population was deemed too widespread for eradication efforts, the Agriculture Department said.

The first reported sighting of the little fire ant on Maui was in October 2009, when the ant was detected on a farm in Waihee. The infested area involved about a half acre, and eradication efforts appear to have been successful and monitoring continues.

Suspected invasive species should be reported to the state’s toll-free pest hotline – 643-PEST (7378). For updated information on the little fire ant, go to the Agriculture Department website at hdoa.hawaii.gov/pi/main/lfainfo/.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.


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