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Little fire ant infestation found across 12 acres in Kapalua

The Maui News

An estimated 12 acres in Kapalua is infested with little fire ants, according to a discovery early this month and reported Thursday by the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

State Department of Agriculture staff inspected the site and “could see trails of little fire ants on vegetation, indicating the ants had been present for a significant amount of time, probably years,” the committee said.

A Kapalua resident sent a sample of the ants via regular mail to the Agriculture Department, which received it on Nov. 2.

On Nov. 7, crews from the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project, Puu Kukui Watershed Preserve and the Maui Invasive Species Committee surveyed the site to determine the extent of the infestation, the committee said. An estimated 2,000 samples were collected and used to estimate the insects cover 12 acres, although that area may increase as more surveys are conducted.

Most of the infested area is in and around ornamental gardens, but the population of ants extends to the shoreline, the group said. A separate and smaller infestation is in a nearby gulch used to dump green waste.

The committee said that it’s of “particular concern” that the infestation is in close proximity to the largest active coastal seabird nesting colony on Maui at Hawea Point. However, no fire ants were found in the seabird colony.

However, “little fire ants are a particular threat to nesting seabirds and their young,” the committee said.

Seabirds are naive to the threat of little fire ants. They habitually return to ancestral nesting grounds year after year, sitting on nests, despite invasive ants swarming them.

“When chicks begin to hatch from their eggs, ants, seeking the abundant protein of a meat meal, will enter the initial hole opened by the chick to exit and eat the emerging chick before it can break out of the eggshell,” said Jay Penniman, manager of the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery program.

Chicks that successfully hatch are programmed to stay in the burrow and wait for their parents to return with food. The fire ants sting the chicks repeatedly, and the stings can affect the chicks’ development, oftentimes leading to them failing to grow feathers.

Committee manager Adam Radford said he’s optimistic about coping with the infestation.

“The infested area is in terrain that is easy to access, and we have support from the property managers in the area,” he said. “They understand the severity of the situation and are helping us in every way.”

Eradication treatment will begin early next month. Committee staff is working with landowners and others, including the Hawaii Ant Lab, to develop an eradication plan.

A native of Central and South America, the little fire ant was discovered on the Big Island in 1999 and on Maui in 2009. The ants deliver a painful sting to humans, blind pets and threaten the state’s visitor and agriculture industries.

Residents can help by checking their yards for the little fire ant by sending insect samples to the committee or the Agriculture Department. Resources and testing information can be found at stoptheant.org and littlefireants.com.