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Little fire ant infestation found in Happy Valley

Community meeting planned for May 16

Some little fire ants are shown in this DLNR photo. A little fire ant infestation in Happy Valley was identified last month and currently is being treated. -- Department of Land and Natural Resources photo

A little fire ant infestation in Happy Valley was identified last month and currently is being treated, the Maui Invasive Species Committee said Friday.

The invasive ant that stings and can maim animals was first discovered on Maui in 2009, and this is the 11th episode reported since then, said Lissa Fox Strohecker, public relations and education specialist for MISC. The last infestation on Maui was reported in December 2017, when the pests were found in the Kaeleku area outside Hana and at a retail plant nursery in Kihei.

Council Member Alice Lee, whose residency district includes Happy Valley, will be holding a community meeting at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku at 6 p.m. May 16. Officials from MISC and the state Department of Agriculture will be presenting information on the threat of the ant, the current status of Maui’s infestations, the plan for treatment and community efforts to prevent the spread.

In early April, a Wailuku resident met inspectors with the state Department of Agriculture at their office with a sample of ants he had collected from a family property on Mokuhau Street, said Strohecker in a news release about the infestation. He initially encountered the ants several months ago while cutting bamboo on the property but attributed the itching rash on the back of his neck to an allergic reaction.

When he was stung near his eye, he realized there was an insect to blame. Friends suggested contacting the Department of Agriculture, and an inspector instructed him on how to collect samples of ants using peanut butter and a chopstick.

The Agriculture Department identified the specimens as little fire ants or wasmannia auropunctata, Strohecker said. The next day, a team from the Agriculture Department and MISC arrived in the Happy Valley neighborhood and surveyed 18 of the surrounding properties, including along the Wailuku River.

Initial surveys indicated that the little fire ants were present on 10 properties, she said. About 3 to 4 acres are estimated to be infested, mostly backyards and a hillside with heavy vegetation. There were no little fire ants found on the riverbank.

Treatment at the Happy Valley site has begun; but MISC currently is unable to treat the full infestation area because not all residents are allowing access, Strohecker said. MISC and the Agriculture Department are working to resolve the issue.

The source of the infestation is unknown, she said.

MISC currently is managing six infestation sites. The little fire ants are no longer present at Waihee, Haiku, a South Maui resort and a South Maui business. MISC will continue to monitor each site for at least five years to ensure that the ants are eliminated, Strohecker said.

The little fire ant has been called one of the 100 worst invasive species globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Invasive Species Specialist Group, she said. They were first detected on Hawaii island in 1999.

Little fire ants can reach large densities — 80 million ants per acre — and outcompete many other insects and small vertebrates, she said. The ants live in trees as well as on the ground.

People often discover the ants by brushing against heavily infested bushes or in windy conditions when the ants fall off plants or trees, Strohecker said. Unsuspecting victims of the “ant rain” are left with painful stings and animals can be blinded.

“Left unchecked, this species will affect Maui’s environment, agriculture, and forever change our quality of life,” she said.

Anyone on Maui who suspects they may have a population of little fire ants is urged to contact MISC at 573-MISC (6472) or the state Department of Agriculture on Maui at 873-3555. Reports also may be filed online at 643PEST.org.

For more information on the little fire ant and how to collect samples go to www.stoptheant.org.