[Transcription] There is a new, invasive, stinging ant now established on the Big Island that threatens the environment, the economy, and the way of life on all the Hawaiian Islands.
How could this be? How could I not know about this? How could this be something that’s going to threaten me so badly and I’ve never heard of it?
When you look in the grand scheme of things, the nastiest of the invasive ants, with the greatest impact on Hawai’i is the little fire ant.
A guy came in with his back completely covered with fire ant bites. I would guess two hundred, three hundred bites.
They’d crawl up our legs, they were on our couches, in our beds, in my dresser. Millions of ’em. They were just everywhere.
I’ve been the manager of the Maui Invasive Species Committee for more than a decade. Working with an amazing team of people, staff, partners, working to control and eradicate the most harmful species across Maui Nui. I’ve had the opportunity to work on issues statewide. Traveling to Big Island, Kaua’i, and Tahiti, I’ve seen just how devastating the little fire ant can be and my concern has only grown. I’m now convinced that without an extraordinary effort, the little fire ant will be a catastrophe for Hawai’i.
The little fire ant is native to South America. Moved by human travel and commerce the ants have spread to many islands in the Pacific with devastating impacts. In 1999, little fire ants were discovered in Puna on the Big Island. Now they are widespread in Hāmākua, Hilo, and Puna, from Waipi’o to Kalapana. By 2011 they had spread to Kona and are now established in many sites. In 1999, they were found in Kalihiwai on Kaua’i, and in 2009 a small infestation was confirmed in Waihe’e, Maui.
Dr. Cas Vanderwoude in an expert on the little fire ant who has worked on ants throughout the Pacific. He is now based in Hilo as Hawai’i’s ant specialist.
I was working on a project in New Guinea and the locals there took me to a place that was infested with little fire ants. And the impacts were so extraordinary, the problems that this species caused were so huge, that it was sort of a bit of a turning point for me, I guess, and from that time onward I spent more and more of my time working researching ways to control this species and also looking at the kind of impacts this species has on both people, and on the environment, and on agriculture.
Now with little fire ants, we have colonies with lots and lots of queens. So if one queen dies, it’s not that important because there are other queens that will take her place. And those queens will stay with that parent colony, or walk away a few feet, or a few yards so that they remain connected to the parent colony all the time where really most scientists would consider that network to be a single colony and we would call that a super colony. Super colonies can span many aces, many thousands of acres in some cases where all the workers you would find all work together and cooperate with each other.
The Hawaiian Islands are in the early stages of infestation. Unless we stop their spread, little fire ants will form massive super colonies on each island changing Hawai’i forever.
Most ants like open, sunny, kind of drier places, but little fire ants are much more of a rainforest species. They like it shady, they like it wet, and they like to live in trees, which again, most ants will nest in the ground and then actually forage on trees but these will look for places to set up their nests in the trees themselves. For an arboreal species, for a species that like to live in trees, they’re not actually very good at hanging on. So even a small bump to vegetation will result in a rain of these little ants falling down onto the person or the animal that’s bumped the tree.
We got rained upon by all of these fire ants. We didn’t know what it was, but it was very, very painful it was. Like burning after that, just had to go take a shower and it still was burning after that.
The sting’s actually very small and a lot of people don’t notice that it’s an insect that stung them. What they end up with is, a few minutes after being stung, they end up with a rash.
It was like, what is this rash? Intensely itchy, painful rash. And the itch, if you can not scratch is manageable, manageable if you don’t scratch. But kids scratch and adults scratch. And you know it’s just very hard to not go, I have a fire ant bite right here, it’s very hard for me to not dig at it right now cause it’s itching me.
They were so itchy, they were so, so itchy and I mean even a day or two after I got bit they were still itchy. They hurt for a long time and they leave scars, too cause I would scratch them I guess.
The pattern of fire ant bites is that they disappear for a while and then they come back, they disappear for a while and then they come back. And over three or four days, on day three it can be just as itchy as it was on day one. The next level of concern is infection, that’s when people dig at it. And around here when you have an open sore, you’re going to get infected. You’re gonna get a staphylococcal infection and then chances are really good that it’s gonna be MERSA and so that’s what we are dealing with at the clinic.
Yeah, well I remember the first time Michaela got bit by a fire ant. It bit her on her chest and it swelled and it was red and it was really angry looking and I think she was maybe not even a month old, I think, and I just freaked out.
You know we’d sit and the couch and you’d look on the ground and you’d see ants, you know, right under you. So we couldn’t put her on the ground.
You’d have to dust your feet off before you sat on the couch or got into bed. Shake your towels out, your clothes out. They were just everywhere. It was everywhere.
Now, it’s just really a prevalent problem. They’re everywhere. I think everybody would have a story about an infestation in their homes, in their cars. They’re all over in the schools. Prior to the very recent treatment of this school, they were in my classroom. It’s challenging in an elementary school and an edible garden. I had to let all the parents know, we have this problem. If you kid comes home with a…you know, make sure that none of them have allergies. But everybody at one point or another got a bite or two. The custodians, I mean they a hard time maintaining the campus because all of the foliage around the campus was just loaded.
So, when they did the septic tank they brought in materials and they brought in cinder, so I’m thinking that they probably brought in the ants too. We never had that problem before. And then whatever we move around, the materials, you spread around for the campus, so we probably spread it more.
People are being stung in their homes, at work, and in parks. Public land and wild places may be abandoned to the ants. Hunting, hiking, and even beach trips will not be the same. The ants have already infested parks in the Hilo area.
We notice because it’s around out tower. And then for some of the people that lay out on the grass or sometimes they lay out on the far side, over there and they come telling us they’re getting bit. It falls off the trees, too, sometimes. It falls onto the beach patrons and they come up, something’s burning their neck and…[sigh]. It’s a really bright, bright day you see the little ant cause it’s really small. That thing actually went with us to our homes. That’s the, that’s the bad part. In our cars. They spread and end up in your bed and you get a bite in the night and not a good feeling. Yeah, it’s getting worse, it’s getting worse.
But for people that live a subsistence lifestyle, that live, you know, very firmly connected with the land, that produce most of their own food and the things that they need from their own land. And they have to suffer the crop losses or the economic losses or the production losses and there’s not a lot that they can do about it.
Everywhere, there’s not, not one spot without ants. If he didn’t treat, he’d have no life, no income. So, t he ant has been here for six years and he’s been able to contain it right on his property and trying to find a way to get rid of it.
Some of the people I talk to they feel really trapped because they don’t have the ability either financially or technically to actually deal with these issues, so it just adds an extra burden to their life.
They don’t even want to eat their bananas any more. The pineapple is full of ants. The ants get into the taro. What was it like before the ants came, living here? A lot of food. It was really nice. A lot of food. Paradise. It was paradise, but they don’t give up. How long has the land in this area been a part of her family? Generations. How often do you get stung? Everyday, everyday, everyday. When the wind is really strong, don’t come outside. A lot of people have abandoned their land already. Her cousin abandoned his land, up there they abandoned they’re land. They left. They don’t wasn’t to live here anymore. They gave up.
So Tahiti is the most populated island in French Polynesia. It is also the biggest one with the tallest peaks and mountains, so it has the richest biodiversity in French Polynesia. We’ve got about 850 native plants including 550 endemics. If some colonies are accidentally moved to those higher elevation areas it would be an ecological disaster.
Like Tahiti, Hawai’i is an evolutionary showcase with an exceptionally high number of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Little fire ants have the ability to transform and decimate native places and species. Forest birds and ground nesting sea birds are at risk along with sea turtle hatchlings. Even the smallest creatures, bugs, beetles, and spiders are vulnerable. In some infested areas of New Caledonia, little fire ants now dominate, making up more than 90% of insects with impacts cascading throughout entire ecosystems.
Hawai’i’s got quite a remarkable number of seabirds for the area. We have 23 breeding species of seabirds. Probably 20 would be directly threatened by ants in a large way. And all of them have this really long incubation period and long defenseless period. This about a month old chick of a wedgetailed shearwater and you can see it’s pretty helpless. There’s no tail feathers or wing feathers. A big, fat, ball of down. These birds are particularly susceptible to ants during the period of time when the egg is ready to hatch. It makes a hole in the egg shell which allows ants and things to actually enter it and to start directly attacking the chick inside of the egg. If ants were to get into some of the of the low wet forests like I’ve heard that they’ve done in other areas, they may be the thing that would push Newell Shearwaters and low elevation nesting Hawaiian Petrels or other endangered species over the edge.
The effect that it has on pets. The blinding and I’m sure it’s got to be very painful for them to be constantly being bitten or stung.
At start she was loving to go in the bush. Now she stays home. She is blind.
One time we did witness a bite on the eye. He came in right after and just ferociously rubbing his eye. You know, he was in a lot of pain for a while. You could tell. A few hours, sat and just licked and rubbed his eye.
The black one who is affected the most, if I pick him up, it never fails, he’s got fire ants in his fur. I’m bitten every time I pick him up.
Every single animal we have, we have three cats and two dogs and every single one of them has a, have clouded cornea. There’s no question that the fire ants and the clouded cornea come together I don’t know how you prove it.
Being here I know, I know that’s what ‘s doing it. Feeling the stings, I’m sure that it’s the fire ants.
We’re animal lovers, yeah. They’re very much a part of the family.
When I first heard that the little fire ant had arrived on Maui, my heart sank because I knew what a threat it posed and knew what the challenges are associated with trying to control a pest species that is so small, but that can be so powerfully damaging.
When we were making a banana delivery my glasses had dropped to the ground and when I picked them up and put them on I got bit on the eye. And it was so severe. I had to, like, run to the house and put ice on my eye. I had to lay down and the thought came that, I wonder if this is the fire ant. Initially when they came out to do the testing, so they put the peanut butter sticks everywhere, where we felt the ant, we’d experienced the ant. And it came back positive. It was evident that the destruction that the fire ant can bring to an island, which is what’s happening on the Big Island is something we did not want to happen here on Maui. Then whatever contribution we could make to help prevent the fire ant from coming to Maui we were gonna make.
So Maui was a good small scale test case. And Kaua’i presents a good opportunity for a large scale test case on eradication.
Right here we’re on Kalihiwai Beach. It’s a beautiful sandy scape and it abuts this cliff side area. The ant infestation is actually along that cliff line around the corner.
And as I got to the bottom of the cliff where i go holoholo and I could feel some bites all over my shoulders and my back and I was like, ho, what is this? And then I could see some ants was on top of me. When it’s wet, you’re always grabbing trees, grabbing the rope, so I guess that’s what kinda makes ’em all come down too on you. And you’re getting bit going down the trail and it’s like, ahhh. That’s the trail we use all the time and that would be the trail I would take my son down there and having the ants fall on top of him and getting bit up, that’d be a big concern for me. I wouldn’t want that happening.
Well, some landscaper came and you know, landscaped the property down below here and two fire ants were in that particular plant and now we have a colony. It’s really bothered us and so I asked that question. How and why, where did this fire ant come from?
Historically, the little fire ant arrived to Kaua’i in 1999 on a shipment of palms. So the original infestation was only about five acres. It was believed to be eradicated, but what had actually happened was that it was brought to undetectable levels. And unfortunately now it’s about twelve to fifteen acres. Without Department of Ag’s containing it on that edge, it would have spread across that property and on to the next one. It would be devastating to have it infest this area, one of the nicest beaches on Kaua’i.
Farming is woven into Hawai’i’s history and is key to a sustainable future. Healthy are a critical component of farming. The pollination of crops, honey production, and Hawai’i’s Queen Bee industry face a new threat.
The bee industry is important wherever you are. All our hives have succumbed to LFA because LFA is a protein eater and the larval stage of the bees are very susceptible. If you have LFA and they’re close to your hive and they can get up and into that hive, they’ll probably take your hive down. I think it’s much more dangerous than the varroa mite.
Both local and export agriculture and our hopes for food security are at risk because of the little fire ant. In addition to stinging agricultural workers, little fire ants can weaken plants by farming insects like aphids and mealy bugs.
Those insects secrete a sugary substance that the ants use as a source of energy. So the ants have a huge source of energy that allows them expand and grow and farm yet more mealy bugs and scale insects which makes the plant sicker and sicker. That decline in health could result in quite substantial crop losses.
I grow macadamia nuts, coffee. I have lychee, mangosteen, orchids. Just a little bit of everything. A diversified crop farm.
I was going to grow four to eight acres of palms for hearts of palm, a couple acres bamboo nursery. So by the time we discovered them, we had millions and millions and millions. The palms are not harvestable because of the ants. I’m out of business. Totally. Little fire ant.
Now I have fire ants in my lychee crop. You’re in there with the panicles and you’re trying to grab your lychee and cut it and all that. You get them on you. I watched them as they were shaking all these ants off of them. And basically it was raining ants. Raining fire ants on them from the lychee.
The cost of trying to actually control fifteen acres when there are literally, you can ask Cas, but I’m sure hundreds of thousands in one tree. And finding people willing to work in the orchard is extremely difficult. I really think that this is the most devastating invasive that we have.
When I heard about the little fire ant I was really appalled and really scared. We’d be in very big trouble if it came into our coffee lands. We harvest off the tree and these branches are always leaning over us. Harvesting anything from a tree is going to be very, very, very difficult. And it will greatly impact agriculture. I mean, agriculture as we know it will not be here.
Wearing my hat as the chair of the board of agriculture, I see little fire ant as being a very significant threat. We need to address this quickly.
When you look at our mandate, what is it to do? It’s not just to protect agriculture, it’s not just to protect the environment, it is to protect the native biota, it’s to protect the public health. We can’t do it all. And that is very frustrating. It’s hard choices. It’s choosing between snakes or between, do we look at all the fish coming in because they may have pirahnas in them. Or do we look about what we’re not doing now which is the weedy plants. We’re so dependent on food, imported food, that we can’t let our stores or restaurants go empty. So we’re forced to get it out. Whether or not there are pests on them, we’re forced to get them out. We still get a sampling of interceptions. You know things are getting through and now what do we do from here.
So invasive species and the little fire ant in particular are very problematic because they will inhibit, I think, agricultural expansion.
So I think, it is impacting our growers. I think they’re finding that the ant is moving and where they didn’t have a problem a couple years ago, I think everyone is concerned this pest is moving from area to area and how do you deal with it. I think that’s the difficulty with this. It’s the size of the pest. This particular one is so small that you really have to look for it. Because we’re already considered a high risk pathway for the spreading of pests to the continental US, the presence of little fire ant in these nursery shipments or these flower shipments has heightened the concern that it will cause a California embargo.
California’s gotten very, very restrictive in terms of what we can export from Hawaii to their markets. So they’re, you know, they’re really kind of on the verge of closing us down.
If they find out that they cannot export their crop. Or, or sell it, at all. I think they’ll be very concerned. But because most people don’t have it, or haven’t been stung, bitten, they don’t know the effect. they don’t know that this is a very serious insect.
Because our islands are connected, you have to have real, meaningful, ongoing inspection, detection, reporting capabilities, because without that we will get it. It will become established and it will spread in the Pacific.
The ant is essentially gonna be, is here to stay on the Big Island and that’s just the reality and what we’re gonna be doing is mitigating effects, essentially forever. What we need is a good detection network so we can respond quickly and eradicate it before LFA gets a good foothold.
To do that we need more support for our inspectors. We need more inspectors. We need sniffer dogs, dog detectors and handlers. We need to have the industry, the shipping industry to be involved and supportive. We need to stop [the ants] from moving between islands. And that’s why it’s so important for people everywhere to become aware of what it looks like, what it does, how to report it, and to demand the tools and the resources to address it when it does become established. We need support from our legislators, our elected officials, county officials, federal officials, and we need everyone to be involved.
There’s on thing that that little ant really loves, and it’s peanut butter.
So you take a chopstick and thinly coat it with peanut butter on one end and lay it in the areas where you think you might have little fire ant. Be it a potted plant you’re bringing onto your property or a banana tree you’ve already planted or a palm you’ve already planted, they really do like moisture. It’s really not difficult, at all. Within forty five minutes, the sticks will have the little fire ant on them. They’re very small, but you should be able to see them. And of course if you do find them, you want to put that little stick in a plastic bag, freeze it to kill it, and then send it to the Department of Agriculture so that they can make a positive ID because there actually are quite a few stinging ants on the islands and they’re only able to actually positively ID them with a microscope.
We need for people to understand just how serious this problem is and to ask, demand, support action to stop it now while we still have a chance.