State inspects Mililani Mauka homes infested with little fire ants

The Dept. of Agriculture says for the first time, little fire ants have turned up in a residential neighborhood on Oahu.

Earlier this month, a resident on Auina St. in Mililani Mauka sent in samples of ants after family members were bitten inside their home. The next day, the Department of Agriculture confirmed it was the invasive pest.

“We are finding it in more and more houses today (Friday). There’s about 125 houses right around this area. There’s a gulch behind there. We’re checking to see if that’s infested and then there’s houses on the other side of the gulch that we’re also checking,” said Rob Curtiss, acting plant pest control branch manager for the Department of Agriculture.

To survey the area, workers planted vials outside of homes and marked them in a GPS system. The vials contain peanut butter, which should attract the ants. About an hour later, workers returned to the site to check out the findings.

“We’ll be able to make better decisions on how we can proceed, whether we can eradicate or just get it under control,” Curtiss said.

The Dept. of Agriculture says at least eight homes on Auina St. in Mililani-Mauka are infested and officials believe that number will go up as they investigate the extent of the infestation.

But until they do, officials can’t say how long it will take to get rid of them.

State Rep. Beth Fukumoto lives down the street from the infested homes. “It’s actually something I have been watching for over a year now, because we knew it was a possibility,” she said.

Neighborhood board chair Dean Hazama also lives close by. “It’s a surprise to all of us. I think that it is important and critical for the state to keep our residents informed of their efforts,” he said.

A resident we spoke to says he knows first-hand how frustrating the little pests can be. He says they’ve been in his home for at least four years.

“My son has been getting bitten. He’s about four years old now. But he was bitten through all this time,” said Joseph Lee, who lives on Auina Street. “They’re everywhere. Bedroom, kitchen, bathroom. Mostly on the first level. I never seen them on the second level yet.”

“Why do you think it took so long to detect these little fire ants?” KHON2 asked.

“I think people didn’t realize that this was something different. If you move into your house and it has ants, they don’t think, ‘Oh, this must be an invasive species.’ You just think it came with the house, not realizing that this ant is actually different,” Curtiss said.

Experts say eradicating a small infestation doesn’t pose much of a problem, but once the colony gets a foot hold they can spread to other areas at about 30 feet per year.

While that might not seem like much, there’s another problem. “What really helps them along is us,” Curtiss said. “We can accidentally and inadvertently transport them to a new location.”

So what can residents do in the meantime? The Department of Agriculture says they can help treat areas outside of the home. But if the ants are already inside, you can buy commercial bait or hire an exterminator.

As for the state, they say they are taking proactive measures to combat the pest. One current project the state is working on is training detector dogs that can sniff out the ants.

“The introduction of dogs should also really help.They can smell fire ants at 30 feet,” said David Duffy, a biology professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

But that might not be an overall solution.

“What we need is a comprehensive strategy to help minimize those risks and the detector dogs would play one part of that particular program,” said Hawaii Ant Lab’s Cas Vanderwoude.

“I think the state should do more,” Fukumoto said. “The problem is I think more has not been done in the past so I am more critical on the fact of where we are, but I do think the state is ramping up efforts which should also be noted.”

“We’re doing a lot of outreach to the community. We have a team of several different agencies working together to get information out the public that tells them this is a new ant. It also tells them how to survey their yard and to get those samples to the Department of Agriculture. It’s something that everyone in Hawaii needs to be aware of,” said Curtiss.

If suspect the little fire ants in your neighborhood, call the state’s pest hotline: 643-PEST (7378).

Since the LFA detection in December, HDOA and partner agencies have been asking residents on Oahu and Maui to survey their homes.

To test for LFA, residents are instructed to use a little peanut butter on a chopstick and leave them in several areas for about one hour. Any ants collected should be put in a sealable plastic bag, placed in the freezer for 24 hours and dropped off or mailed to any HDOA office.

An informational flyer may be downloaded here.

In addition, the Department of Land and Natural (DLNR) Resources has produced a three-minute video, “How to Test for LFA,” which shows the step-by-step procedure for testing for LFA.

Originally from South America, LFA is considered among the world’s worst invasive species. LFA are tiny ants, measuring 1/16-inch long and are pale orange in color. They move slowly, unlike the Tropical Fire Ant, which is established in Hawaii, move quickly, and are much larger with a larger head in proportion to its body.

LFA 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 buildings and homes and completely overrun a property.

For updated information on LFA in Hawaii, go to the HDOA website.

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