State sees promising results in fight against little fire ants

Lawmakers consider measures for added manpower, money and quarantines

Little fire ants

The eradication program for the little fire ant (LFA) infestation in a Mililani Mauka neighborhood is showing early signs of success. After completing five of the eight planned treatments in the six-acre infestation zone, spot surveys have not detected LFA.

“While we are still guarded in our assessment, the fact that we aren’t finding little fire ants indicates that the eradication plan is working pretty well,” said Scott Enright, chairperson of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture. “The collaboration between multiple agencies, area legislators, the community association and the residents is really the foundation of this early success.”

LFA was first detected in Mililani Mauka in June 2014 by a resident on Auina St. Subsequent surveys found the invasive ants covered homes on both sides of a greenway (gully).

A multi-agency group has been working since to survey and treat the area. The agencies include HDOA, the Hawaii Ant Lab (HAL), the Oahu Invasive Species Committee and the Hawaii Invasive Species Council.

According to the treatment plan developed by HAL and HDOA entomologists, several alternating types of pesticides and bait formulas are applied on a six-week interval. The last treatment scheduled for Mililani Mauka is in May 2015.

Crews applied approved chemicals on yards, as well as in trees, and after a few series of treatments, they were able to control the ant population. The state says homeowners can also apply the chemical Amdro, which can be found in most garden shops, but officials prefer to take the lead in treatments.

“What we tell the homeowners is that you can use Amdro because it’s easy to find,” said Derek Arakaki, plant pest control specialist with the state Department of Agriculture. “But for us, we’d like to do the treatments. We go out and do the whole yard, every square inch.”

Officials say they will still need to do three more treatments and then monitor the area for up to three years to make sure the little fire ants have been eradicated.

“We would not have been able to accomplish as much as we have without the exemplary cooperation of the Mililani residents and the town association,” said Neil Reimer, PhD, administrator of HDOA’s Plant Industry Division. “We received 100 percent cooperation from the residents in allowing us on their properties and many helped us conduct surveys and even took time off from work to help us.”

Meanwhile, agriculture officials are pushing a measure that, for one, would give them added manpower and money to step up inspections of goods shipped from the Big Island, where the little fire ant and coqui frog are firmly established.

Enright says when the little fire ant was first discovered on the Big island in 1999, the infestation was already too widespread to eradicate the pest, so the agriculture department instead focuses on control.

He says battling the little fire ant on Maui and Kauai has also proven difficult. “On Kauai, we found it on a cliff-side home,” he said, “and where we found it on Maui, along the Hana Highway, it is in fairly rugged terrain.”

The state says it was far easier to take on the little fire ant in Mililani Mauka, where the terrain is easier to deal with and there were residents willing to cooperate.

“It was a scary time for us,” said Dave O’Neal, executive director of the Mililani Town Association. “We all read the stories of the little fire ant and all the damage they can do and the pain they can cause.”

Gerald Tanaka was working out in the yard with his wife when she was bit a few months ago. She was bit yet again, and that’s not all.

“Actually, it did come in my home and it bit my mom,” said Tanaka. “They like peanut butter and chocolate and whatnot, so if you’re eating that and just put it on the side, they’ll come in and eat it.”

State agriculture officials are also looking for another controversial tool.

“In places like the Big Island where the little fire ant is firmly established, we probably will move to quarantine areas,” said Enright. “And when we are in, we will call for compliance agreements.”

Enright said the department will especially target fruit and potted plants, which the pests like to hitch rides on as they are being transported around and out of the Big Island. He said the proposed legislation would allow for the transport of the goods out of quarantined areas if the growers agree to sign compliance agreements to help the state deal with the pests.

Senate Bill 1059 was already approved with minor amendments by three committees in the state Senate, and has been referred to both the Ways and Means committee and the Judiciary and Labor committee for further review.

Click here for more information on LFA in Hawaii.

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