The Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC) hosted an informational meeting and film premier on Wednesday, Jan. 8, at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center to encourage community members to learn about the dire consequences associated with an invasive species known as the Little Fire Ant (LFA).
In his opening remarks to the packed house, Mayor Alan Arakawa said, "I have a speech prepared, but I am not going to read it. Instead, I am just going to talk to you."
The mayor proceeded to explain that the county and the state lack the resources and manpower to take on this tiny menace alone.
The pale orange Little Fire Ant is only one-16th of an inch long. It should not be confused with the larger tropical fire ant, which also stings and has already established itself on Maui.
"This is the worst invasive species we've ever encountered," said Arakawa. "We need your help. We need each of you to be vigilant. The potential harm to our island could be tremendous."
Following the mayor, a short, 30-minute film was shown. "Invasion: Little Fire Ants in Hawai'i" provided additional context and history on this blight. Originating in South America, these tiny stowaways infiltrated the South Pacific via human commerce and have already established super colonies in similar island environments, such as Tahiti, where they continue to wreak havoc.
First identified in the District of Puna on Hawai'i Island in 1999, these diminutive, yellow ants pack a powerful punch. They have effectively colonized much of the Hamakua Coast, and have now moved onto Kona, negatively impacting agriculture, wild and domestic plants and animals, and the island lifestyle.
For an arboreal (tree dwelling) species, LFAs aren't very good at hanging on. The slightest jostling of a tree or plant can send a shower of stinging ants raining down onto an unwitting victim below.
In addition to having a painful sting, these tiny ants are also "farmers," raising scales and mites on plants to "milk" for carbohydrates and causing great damage to food crops such as kalo (taro).
And the blinding of beloved pets is now a fairly a common, heartbreaking occurrence on Hawai'i Island.
LFA were first identified on Maui by Christina Chang at her Lokelani 'Ohana farm in Waihe'e in 2009. She sacrificed her certified organic standing to allow the use of pesticides in order to save Maui from a potential infestation.
For her vigilance and personal sacrifice, Chang was presented the Malama i ka 'Aina Award by MISC Manager Teya Penniman. From the audience, she received a standing ovation.
In the panel discussion that followed the film and award presentation, Dr. Cas Vanderwoude, head of the Hawai'i Ant Lab, said, "An invasion of LFA is a biological crisis. They are a thousand times worse than the species of fire ant that has been terrorizing America's Southwest. They have many 'queens' and form super-colonies that can span thousands of acres."
A self-proclaimed expert at "killing things," Vanderwoude was called in to work with Chang back in 2009. After exhausting all possibilities, Chang agreed to the use of a lesser evil (pesticides) for the greater good.
"This woman Chang is a hero," said Vanderwoude.
"California is talking about introducing an embargo on goods from Hawai'i," he continued. "You cannot afford an infestation on Maui."
According to Vanderwoude, "About a dozen people come into my Hilo lab every day bringing specimens for testing, and about half of them test positive for LFAs."
State Department of Land and Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist Dr. Fern Duvall voiced an additional dilemma.
"This ant can undo all the good we have done," he said. "Wildlife, such as ground nesting birds, plants and snails, never come into my office. This is why community vigilance is so crucial."
The last panelist to speak was Hawai`i Island Filmmaker Masako Cordray, who shared how personal her journey had become when she purchased some native ferns from a local farmer, only to find they were infested with LFAs. Subsequent research showed that infected ferns had been shipped to two Maui nurseries, and were sold to unsuspecting consumers.
"LFA are on Maui," said Cordray. "We just don't know where."
This is why MISC's "Spot the Ant - Stop the Ant" campaign is so critical. If you suspect you have spotted LFAs, take a chopstick and lightly coat it with peanut butter and stake it next to the suspect plant. (Apparently, LFA cannot resist peanut butter.) Wait 45 minutes. If the chopstick is covered with tiny ants, place it in a Ziplock bag, put it in the freezer long enough to kill all the ants and then send it along with your contact information (be sure to include your address), to the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture, 1428 S. King St. Honolulu, HI 96814-2512. Call (808) 973-9560.
If a specimen tests positive for LFAs, expect a visit from Vanderwoude and his team of ant assassins.
For more information on LFAs and how you can play an important role in stopping their invasion, visit the Hawai'i Ant Lab Website at www.littlefireants.com and MISC's Website at mauiinvasive.org. For more information on the LFAs and their history in Hawai'i, visit hdoa.hawaii.gov/pi/files/2013/01/npa99-02-lfireant.pdf.
Editor's note: According to The Maui News, Lowe's Home Improvement and Home Depot were identified Thursday, Jan. 9, as stores to which hapu'u (Hawaiian tree) ferns were shipped with infestations of LFAs. State Department of Agriculture officials ask those who purchased a fern from either store over the last 12 months to check the vicinity of the plants for LFAs. The Maui News also reported that residents should call the Agriculture Department's Plant Quarantine Branch in Kahului at 872-3848 about suspect ants. The office is open weekdays from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Maui Invasive Species Committee's phone number is 573-6472.