Agriculture in Hawaii is facing a huge threat from the little fire ant, an invasive stinging ant that bites more than just people. Infestations have spread across Kauai, Maui, Hawaii and Oahu, and despite previous advances toward eradication, the tiny invaders have shown no sign that they intend to leave paradise.
The ants, native to Central and South America, were first spotted in the state in 1999, and are thought to have been accidentally shipped to the islands attached to imported plants. According to the Tech Times, the first infestation was too widespread to eradicate when it was originally discovered on the Big Island, and ten years later the pests were found on Maui. Aggressive attempts at eradication over the next decade led Maui to declare the island free of fire ants just nine months ago, but a recent resurgence could require herculean efforts to combat.
Scott Enright of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture says the number of homes that have become involved in the infestations is concerning, and the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation has begun to regularly treat parks for the pests. According to the Associated Press, the largest area of infestation yet—covering 20 acres of forest—was discovered on Maui’s northeastern shore only three months ago, and efforts to eradicate a 13-acre infestation on Kauai continue to irk agricultural officials.
According to a study from the University of Hawaii, a fire ant infestation could decimate an estimated $170 million in agricultural products, should the pests establish themselves firmly on Oahu. The U.S. government has spent $7 billion on eradication efforts, concentrated largely in Hawaii and Florida, reports Nature World News. The cost of eradication efforts on the islands may seem minor, however, in comparison to Hawaii’s $88 billion agriculture industry, where the forgiving climate allows multiple crop cycles per season.
The little fire ant, not to be confused with the larger tropical fire ant, which took up residence in Hawaii in the 1940s, bites people, leaving swollen and uncomfortable welts that can last for weeks, but the ants’ ability to bother humans is possibly the least of Hawaiians’ worries. The pest chomps through almost anything in its path, destroying vegetation and endangering sea turtle hatchlings and ground-nesting seabirds as well as gardens and crops. An article from the Hawaii Ant Lab suggests that little fire ants may even cause blindness in some animals, though the author admits little evidence is available to support that claim. Little fire ants can also form symbiotic relationships with other species of plant pest such as aphids and white flies and cause twice the damage.
According to Randy Bartlett, an inter-agency facilitator with the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, the fire ant colonies that exist on the islands took years to create and eradication could be an uphill battle the Hawaii Department of Agriculture does not have the resources to win. Furthermore, the established colonies may represent only a fraction of the actual infestation. Bartlett remains optimistic, however, and stresses the importance of local reporting to help identify and control new invasions. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture urges all residents to keep their eyes peeled and to report the tiny invaders immediately through the state’s pest hotline.
By Sree Aatmaa Khalsa