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OPINION: Treat Little Fire Ants Like the Threat They Are

Posted April 23, 2014, 08:54 PM HST Updated April 24, 2014, 06:04 PM HST

Little fire ant colonies can contain billions of the insects, an unfathomable amount of stinging power. UH/Hawaii Ant Lab photo.

Let’s hope Hawaii’s lawmakers don’t do to little fire ants what was done to coqui frogs.

And by “do” we mean treat lightly, because this time, there is far more at stake.

When coqui frogs arrived on the Big Island in the late 1980s, nobody in authority took them seriously.

Now history seems to be repeating itself, but on a far nastier scale.

The threat now is not noise but pain — lots of it — and much, much more.

As the Hawaii Ant Lab notes, if you’ve ever been stung, you know where the “fire” in their name comes from.

In some of the many places in the world where they have become established they are known as “electric” ants.

We know at least some members of the Legislature are aware of the scope of the problem.

The dozen or so LFA-related bills introduced this session describe the situation as dire.

It’s time it was treated that way.

Among the things not mentioned in the bills: Their colonies can contain billions of ants. They nest in the ground and in trees of all sizes.

Breezes can bring those in trees raining down on unsuspecting people — including tourists.

If given a chance, they will even nest in homes. Imagine finding them in your couch, or bed. People do.

One bill noted University of Hawaii economists have estimated that the annual impact from the pest exceeds $150 million on the Big Island alone.

That bears repeating: more than $150 million.

According to the University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Ant Lab, significant infestations are found in the area stretching from Kalapana in Puna to Waipio at the western end of Hamakua, including Hilo.

That’s a major portion of a really big island.

There are also scattered colonies from Naalehu to Kailua-Kona, which shows that unlike coqui, they readily breed in arid places.

And while a chirping frog can be a nuisance, multiple welts that can last for a week are much tougher to ignore.

Some people report the welts and pain from LFA can last up to a week. UH/Hawaii Ant Lab photo.

Some people report the welts and pain from LFA can last up to a week. UH/Hawaii Ant Lab photo.

Of the ant-related bills introduced this year, only three remain alive, and two of those deal with stopping invasive species in general from moving into the state.

One of the latter, House Bill 2426, would establish “biosecurity” facilities at Hawaii’s airports and harbors to try to stem the introduction of new invasive species.

Another, House Bill 1932, would allow the state Department of Agriculture to enter into “private-public partnerships” – essentially pre-entry inspection programs for inbound cargo of agricultural products from other states and countries — to enhance the biosecurity program and inspection process.

Neither currently has funding attached. Conference committee hearings were held for both today but not completed.

Legislation already killed includes House Bill 1994 and Senate Bill 2347, which were aimed at stemming the movement of little fire ants around the state by targeting shippers of infested plants.

HB1994, which passed in the House but died in the Senate, would have assessed fines for violations.

SB2347, which was approved by the Senate but deferred by the House before a third and final vote, would have held shippers responsible for the costs of eradicating pests from areas subsequently infested.

Most of the anti-ant legislation rightly says that “immediate action” is needed to stop the spread of the ant which can easily be transported interisland on plants, soil, equipment and vehicles.

It notes that the ant has been contained in one location on Kauai and almost eradicated on Maui, but has become established in several locations on Oahu.

The Department of Agriculture recently announced that a four-acre infestation of the ants in Waimanalo could take years to eradicate.

It’s unfortunate that it requires an appearance on other islands to get lawmakers’ full attention.

Which brings us to the still-surviving Senate Bill 2920, which deals with what is literally the root of the problem – infestations on the Big Island.

Its wording is similar to others, noting that among other things the little fire ant “threatens native biodiversity, alters tropical ecosystems, impairs human health, impedes tourism, diminishes agricultural productivity, mars horticulture sales, and accordingly ranks among the world’s worst invasive species.”

So why isn’t it being treated “accordingly”?

The ants have been on the Big Island since 1999.

This Hawaii Department of Agriculture photo shows a comparison of the size of the little fire ant, which measures just 1/16 of an inch, to the bigger tropical fire ant.

This Hawaii Department of Agriculture photo shows a comparison of the size of the little fire ant, which measures just 1/16 of an inch, to the bigger tropical fire ant, which creates much less of a problem.

It’s obvious that stopping or at least slowing their progress here will make it much easier to prevent their spread elsewhere in the state.

The original version of SB2920 dealt solely with a pilot project at Hawaii County parks to study eradication methods, but that’s already underway.

During House hearings, a provision was added for the Hawaii Ant Lab to establish a canine ant-detection team.

While that sounds far more efficient than the current recommended test of peanut butter on a chopstick, a pilot park program and sniffing dogs still come up woefully short when your children and pets are miserable.

And after one conference committee hearing, there’s still no money in the bill.

Unfortunately, the measure with the biggest punch, Senate Bill 109, died in January after only one committee appearance.

At its lone hearing, the bill was amended by the Senate Agriculture Committee to provide the Department of Agriculture with $1 million for “control and eradication” of the little fire ant, another $800,000 to establish a canine unit in each county to detect ants and other high-priority invasive species, and $350,000 for a program to educate the public on ant detection and eradication.

In the meantime, House and Senate conferees will take another look at SB2920 on Thursday.

It is too late to revive SB109 this session, but hopefully it will be brought back and given a major boost in 2015.

In the meantime, let’s make the most of SB2920.


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