Make your yard less frog-friendly

Coqui spend their days foraging in leaf litter for ants and other insects. They do not have a tadpole stage, and therefore do not need standing water to reproduce. Coqui lay eggs inside a rolled or folded up leaf, leaf litter, damp moss, or other shelter sites. By limiting the areas they can forage and nest, you will make your yard less appealing to coqui frogs and control efforts will be more effective

How to make your landscaping less coqui-friendly:

  1. Limit and/or remove rubbish and green waste piles (chip it up), coqui like to hide in green waste. If you have coqui in your green waste pile, spray well with citric before moving
  2. Don’t plant bromeliads or consider replacing them.
  3. If you have cane grass, mow it.
  4. Remove dead leaves on banana, ti, and other plants with large leaves
  5. Thin out understory vegetation.

Find more tips for eliminating frog-friendly habitat here:  http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/coqui/eliminate.asp

MISC Coqui Crew’s Top 5 Coqui Catching Tips

You can hear the coqui, but you can’t seem to find it? Have been out at night with your flashlight (maybe even in your pajamas) trying to catch that little guy so you can get a good night’s sleep?  Keep reading to find out how the professionals do it. Below, the MISC coqui crew offers their Top 5 tips to find out where that coqui is so you can hand-catch or spray it.

Please help us understand how coqui are moving on Maui – report frogs, even the ones you have caught/controlled yourself, to the MISC coqui crew: 573-6472, miscpr@hawaii.edu.

MISC Crew’s Top 5 Coqui Catching Tips

  1. Look in the right spot: coqui tend to hide in green waste and between the leaves of bromeliads, bananas, and ti leaves.
  2. Turn off house lights and flashlights, then listen and move closer.
  3. Stay quiet or try whistling softly to encourage frog to call back.
  4. Don’t turn on your flashlight until you have pinpointed the frog’s location, then spray where you hear the frog until it’s quiet.
  5. Wait a few minutes to see if frog continues to call. If you are trying to hand-capture a frog and miss, come back in 20 minutes; frogs typically return to the same spot.

Citric Mixing Guidelines

Making your own citric solution:

  • MISC recommends mixing citric at a 5% solution or 1lb per gallon. The best method is to mix the solution by weight it but if you mix by volume use approximately 2 1/4 cups per gallon.
  • Citric dissolves in solution, but it needs to be thoroughly mixed as a citric chunk will clog your sprayer.
  • We can supply you with citric or you can also purchase it on Amazon. Call coqui crew at 573-6472.

Storage:

  • Do not store citric solution as it will corrode plastic container. Spray out all mixed solution (you may be hitting nests) and rinse sprayer with water after use.
  • Unmixed citric should be kept dry and out of direct sun.

Common-sense caution:

  • Citric may burn some sensitive plants, particularly on new growth, ferns, or orchids. You can reduce damage by rinsing off spray 1 hour after application.
  • Personal Protective Equipment: Citric acid can irritate your skin. Wear shoes, long-sleeves, eye protection and ear protection if applicable (for when using gas-powered sprayers).

Got Guano?

This albatross colony on Midway Atoll is representative of what the historic density of seabirds may have been throughout Hawaiʻi. Declines in the seabird population  have an impact throughout the ecosystem. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

This albatross colony on Midway Atoll is representative of what the historic density of seabirds may have been throughout Hawaiʻi. Declines in the seabird population have an impact throughout the ecosystem. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

When horticulturalists at Maui Nui Botanical Gardens want to give an extra boost to their most sensitive and critically endangered Hawaiian plants, they bring out the seabird and bat guano. Why guano? It’s the natural nutrient-packed fertilizer that Hawaiian plants are used to.

Prior to the first canoe reaching Hawaiian shores, taloned and feathered beasts ruled these Islands. Scientists estimate that seabird populations on the main Hawaiian Islands were equivalent to what the 18th century explorers found on the Northwest Hawaiian Islands–in other words, plentiful. Some accounts indicate seabirds were so abundant they blackened the sky. And if they could darken the sky with their wings, they were certainly capable of whitening the ground with their poop, aka guano.

Bird droppings may not be welcome on your car, but plants benefit from the splattered remains of a seabird’s meal. Guano is a gift for growing seedlings: high in nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium–nutrients essential for plant development. The more guano drops from the sky, the more plants sprout from the ground. This growth affects the entire ecosystem. As plants decompose, they provide plentiful and nutritious food for insects, nematodes, snails, and assorted detritivores, as well as soil bacteria and fungus.

An ʻuʻau chick in a burrow. Once plentiful, the ground nesting Hawaiian petrel is critically endgangered, threatened by feral cats, mongoose, and barn owls. Photo by Jay Penniman

An ʻuaʻu chick in a burrow. Once plentiful, the ground nesting Hawaiian petrel is critically endangered, threatened by feral cats, mongoose, and barn owls. Photo by Jay Penniman

Hawaii’s seabird populations are only a fraction of what they once were. The ‘ua‘u, or Hawaiian petrel, was once the most abundant seabird in the Islands. Today this burrowing resident is endangered. In Maui County, remnant populations exist atop the summits of Haleakalā on Maui and Lānaʻihale on Lānaʻi. The reason for the species’ decline is simple, yet irreversible. They were gobbled up by people, rats, mongoose, and barn owls; the hillsides where the birds nested are now pastures, golf courses, farms, and shopping centers. Other seabirds, such as the wedge-tailed shearwater, Newell’s shearwater, and Bulwer’s petrel once filled the air with their cries; these species now live in scattered, isolated populations.

If efforts to restore seabird colonies on the main Hawaiian Islands are successful, this may be a site any resident or visitor to Hawaii can see. For now, you have to visit Midway to see Laysan albatross this dense. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

If efforts to restore seabird colonies on the main Hawaiian Islands are successful, this may be a site any resident or visitor to Hawaii can see. For now, you have to visit Midway to see Laysan albatross this dense. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

Fewer seabirds mean fewer plant fertilizers. We may never fully understand how declines in pelagic bird populations impact the environment in Hawaiʻi, but research on islands in New Zealand offers some insight into what happens when avian populations crash due to introduced predators. Comparing islands that had been invaded by rats with those still dominated by seabirds, researchers found that the soil on rat-infested islands had a much different nutrient composition and pH. Additionally, the types and abundance of insects and other invertebrates varied, possibly due to differing rates of plant growth and nutrient uptake. The scientists concluded that reducing the seabird population triggers effects that cascade through entire ecosystems, down to the smallest microorganism.

Back in Hawaiʻi, there’s an opportunity to find out what happens in reverse–how a seabird-based ecosystem can recover when the invaders are removed. At Kaʻena point on Oʻahu, rats have been eradicated A predator-proof fence now prevents rodents from re-entering the 59-acre protected area. The resurgence of seabirds, with their increasing deposits of poop, will soon boost nitrogen and stimulate the recovery of native plants.

The loss of a single species has implications for the entire ecosystem. In this case, it’s just about the birds, it’s about what they leave behind, what lives off that, and on and on, all the way down.

You can support the restoration of Hawaiian seabird populations. Visit websites for Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project (www.mauinuiseabirds.org/restoration/) and Hawaiʻi Offshore Islet Restoration Committee to learn more (http://www.hawaiioirc.org/about-us/).

Lissa Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia’i Moku, “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.

Originally published in the Maui News, February 8th, 2015 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Look closely—the endemic insects of Haleakalā

Flightless moth

The flightless moth of Haleakalā is one of the more dramatic examples of evolution in Hawaiian insects. Photo courtey of Forest & Kim Starr

The flightless moth of Haleakalā is one of the more dramatic examples of evolution in Hawaiian insects.  Known to science as Thyrocopa apatela, this moth lives only on the barren slopes of Maui’s highest peak. As caterpillars, they spin webs in rock crevices to catch dead leaves blowing past for food. Adult moths hop like grasshoppers across the ground – up to 10 times their body length. Though its evolutionary ancestors could fly, the adults of this species have only partial wings. This unique behavior may have evolved as a result of environmental conditions: high winds and cold may have meant that flight was not an advantage for the moths.

In Hawaiʻi, the climate varies dramatically from one area to another within a short distance. Even if the drizzle never lets up at your house, it could be sunny all day a half mile away. These microclimates create a variety of habitat types that plants and animals have evolved to take advantage of, the tiniest residents included. Native insects and spiders often specialize to survive in their tiny piece of paradise, resulting in the amazing adaptations seen among Hawaiʻi’s insects and spiders.

Of the native Hawaiian insect species, an estimated 98 percent are endemic—meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. Arachnids (spiders) follow suit; an estimated 96 percent of Hawaiian spiders are endemic. The changes that the crawling and flying critters have undergone after arriving in the islands have been dramatic, in part because there are so many varied environmental conditions in a limited area. An ecological niche may be left open that an insect species rapidly adapts to fill.

Researchers have been evaluating potential control measures for the invasive Argentine ant. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

Researchers have been evaluating potential control measures for the invasive Argentine ant. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr.

But today, exotic predators prove to be one of the greatest threats to the flightless moth and other creatures in the alpine environment.  The Argentine ant, Linepithema humile, arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1940, most likely by hitching a ride in military cargo. First detected at Fort Schaffer on Oʻahu, people then unwittingly spread Argentine ants throughout the state; by 1967 ants had been carried to Hosmer’s Grove. Hawaiʻi has no native ants and his alien ant is one of 50 plus ant species accidentally introduced to Hawaiʻi but while most ants live in lower elevations, the Argentine ant prefers the cooler climates of higher elevations

The insects and spiders found in the alpine ecosystem belong to a greater system: the yellow-faced bee and a Hawaiian noctuid moth pollinate silverwords; the silverswords in turn provide habitat for the Hawaiian long-horned beetle, a plant hopper, and the tephritid fly. Extremely rare carabid beetles scavenge a meal from whatever comes their way-researchers only recently rediscovered some of these species, once thought extinct, on the slopes of Haleakalā. The predatory Argentine ant could wipe out this food web shaped over millions of years of evolution. Regular monitoring of Argentine ant populations in Haleakalā National Park has shown that in areas where the invasive ant is present, insect diversity drops by 50 percent and overall insect abundance drops by 65 percent.

Since people first introduced the Argentine ant o Haleakalā, it has spread quickly from the small infestation in Hosmer’s grove. In 1982, a second infestation was found near the Kalahaku overlook on the crater rim. Since Argentine ants don’t have a mating flight, the ants most likely hitched a ride when people inadvertently moved nest material. In Haleakalā National Park the Argentine ant has spread at rates exceeding 150m per year; left unchecked, the ant could cover 75 percent of the subalpine shrubland and Haleakalā crater—critical habitat for many native Hawaiian species.

Researchers have been evaluating potential control measures within the park, particularly for source infestations, such as campgrounds, from which people may unintentionally spread the ant. You can help by making sure your gear and picnic supplies are clean and free of all ants, Argentine or not, that you may have picked up elsewhere in your travels.

Learn more about the native insects on Haleakalā and how the Argentine ant threatens them at http://www.hoikecurriculum.org/unit/good-critters-bad-critters/

Lissa Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia’i Moku, “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.

Originally published in the Maui News, January 11th, 2015 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Coqui calls on the rise

A male coqui guards a clutch of eggs inside a pipe. With coqui populations on the rise throughtout the state there is an increased likelihood of coqui inadvertently reaching Maui. MISC file photo

A male coqui guards a clutch of eggs inside a pipe. With coqui populations on the rise throughtout the state there is an increased likelihood of coqui inadvertently reaching Maui. MISC file photo

The call of the lone coqui may not be increasing in volume, but calls reporting coquis on Maui are on the rise.

There’s been a dramatic increase in coquis arriving on Maui. In 2013, 25 Maui residents reported the presence of these noisy amphibians, almost double the reports from 2012 and 2011 combined. And the trend seems to be continuing for 2014, with reports of these invaders popping up in surprising places across Maui.

Coqui frogs are known to be in a handful of scattered populations around the island. According to the Maui Invasive Species Committee, all are under control and on target for eradication, with the exception of Māliko Gulch in Ha‘ikū. But the influx of new arrivals has the MISC crew concerned.

“We interview homeowners when there are new frogs reported, but we haven’t found any clear source of introduction,” said MISC Operations Manager Adam Radford. “In general, there are more frogs in the state than there used to be.” As coquis increase in number, particularly on Hawaii Island, so do the chances that the notoriously loud hitchhikers will spread elsewhere.

If you have heard a coqui, you know why they are not a welcome addition to your neighborhood. A single male frog has an 80- to 90-decibel screech, as loud as an alarm clock or freeway traffic. The frogs call from dusk until dawn. Coquis arrived in Hawai‘i sometime before 1988. In the absence of predators or competitors, their numbers ballooned, reaching densities exceeding 36,000 frogs per acre – two to three times greater than in their native range in Puerto Rico.

The coquis’ ear-splitting chorus may be the most obvious impact of this invasive species, but recent research suggests there are secondary, less-apparent consequences to allowing these quarter-sized pests to become established. Researchers have long known that coquis eat invertebrates such as insects, spiders and worms, but they recently discovered how these invasive amphibians skew the ecosystem in Hawai‘i.

What goes in must come out. The coqui frogs’ most significant change to the landscape is through the increased nutrient input from their droppings. While this sounds like a good thing, altering nutrients can create an environment more hospitable to non-native species.

This coqui was discovered by an observant Maui resident, hiding in a potted plant recently purchased from a garden shop. MISC file photo.

This coqui was discovered by an observant Maui resident, hiding in a potted plant recently purchased from a garden shop. MISC file photo.

Researchers found increased leaf production rates in invasive strawberry guava in coqui-invaded sites compared to other sites. Plants native to Hawaii evolved in nutrient-poor conditions, so increased nutrient input favors non-native plants. Additionally, scientists found a greater number of insects in the order Diptera (flies) associated with coqui-invaded areas, the outcome of more excrement and more coqui carcasses.

Unfortunately, the coqui frog is widespread on Hawai‘i Island and cannot be eradicated. There, residents work together to control frogs in individual neighborhoods, and nurseries bathe plants at a hot water treatment facility before shipping stock off island. Barriers around parking lots prevent frogs from moving between cars and the areas surrounding the lot. But in the big picture, these stop-gap measures only will provide a temporary respite. We can prevent this from happening on Maui. With only one significant population in Māliko Gulch, land managers believe that the frogs can be eradicated, and new infestations thwarted.

You can help. Report coqui frogs to the Maui Invasive Species Committee at 573-6472. Support business and landscapers who take steps to prevent the spread of coquis via the plant trade. And, find a list of certified coqui-free businesses at coquifreemaui.org. For more detailed information about recent research on impacts of coqui, check out the coqui frog information page under priority pests at mauiinvasive.org.

By Lissa Fox Strohecker. Originally published in the Maui News, August 10th, 2014 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee

LFA – Insidious invaders that you can stop

Ginger Johnson bought a hapu‘u fern late in 2013 to plant alongside others in her yard.

MISC employee Molly Wirth surveys for LFA in response to a Maui residents concern about little fire ant moving in hapuu. No LFA were found. MISC file photo

MISC employee Molly Wirth surveys for LFA in response to a Maui residents concern about little fire ant moving in hapuu. No LFA were found. MISC file photo

But when she heard the news in early January that inspectors found a new species of fire ant hitchhiking from the Big Island to Maui in hapu‘u , she thought of the hapu‘u  she had just brought home. What if the ants had infested her yard? “I was very concerned. I went and looked at it and didn’t see anything.” Johnson left the hapu‘u in the shade of a tree, uncertain about what to do.

“I called a friend of mine who happened to be a biologist. He advised that I do the peanut butter and chopstick test.” The simple test, placing a peanut-butter smeared chopstick near material that may carry little fire ant, will attract many ants, including Wasmannia auropunctata, the little fire ant (LFA). Johnson tested but did not find any ants that resembled LFA, which are tiny (as long as a penny is thick) and uniformly light red in color. She was still concerned and called the Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC) for further assistance.

Crews from MISC arrived, bagged the hapu‘u to contain any ants, and took it to the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture (HDOA) where entomologists examined it for LFA. No suspect ants were found. But because the hapu‘u had been at Johnson’s house for a little while, MISC workers surveyed her property. They’ll return several times to ensure LFA weren’t introduced. This new pest is so damaging, it’s worth the extra effort to prevent it from becoming established on Maui.

Little fire ants can be hard to find when first introduced. Workers may not be foraging far from the queen, and even if several colonies are present, these miniscule insects are very hard to detect. Bait (like the peanut-butter-smeared chopstick) must be placed every two feet or closer. By the time the ants are stinging people or blinding pets, the population may have been present for months or years.

Little fire ants on the large end of a chopstick. Photo courtesy of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

Little fire ants on the large end of a chopstick. Photo courtesy of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

These opportunistic ants don’t build mounds; rather they find shelter in leaf litter, under rocks, or in loose tree bark. Little fire ants are insidious invaders. They don’t announce their presence by swarming feet and legs; instead, they sting when they are trapped against skin or in clothing. Establishing nests in trees and amongst ground cover, LFA can reach densities of 20,000 workers per meter, or a whopping 155 ants in a square inch. At that level, painful encounters become unavoidable.

So: if it’s small, call. MISC will survey your property, using peanut butter to attract ants. Alternatively you can submit a sample to MISC. Expert taxonomists review all ants collected. If they suspect little fire ants, they’ll take the sample to HODA for confirmation.

Little fire ants are not known to be established on Maui, Lāna‘i or Moloka‘i; though small infestations have been detected and controlled on Maui and Lāna‘i. Resources exist to stop this pest in its tracks. An interagency team made up of the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture, Hawai‘i Ant Lab, and Maui Invasive Species Committee will respond to any new infestation in Maui County.

Inspectors at the Kahului airport destroy any little-fire-ant-infested shipments they find, but some might slip through. No organization has the resources to survey all of the places or pathways LFA could travel. If you have brought any soil, potted plants, or vehicles from off-island in the last year, take time to test for LFA. Waiting until you are stung is too late.

“I’m tremendously careful now,” says Johnson. “Someone just told me the other day they got a magnolia tree from the Big Island. My first thought was: how well did you test it?”

To learn more about the little fire ant, including detailed instructions for how to survey, visit the Hawai‘i Ant Lab’s website at littlefireants.com. The HDOA site at  hdoa.hawaii.gov/pi/main/lfainfo/ has updated information on spread. If you suspect you may have LFA, please don’t try to treat them yourself– contact MISC at 573-6472 or the Maui branch of HDOA at 872-2848. “The issue is so frightening,” says Johnson. “I’m born and raised here, so I’ve seen many things change. The only time to deal with something like this is before it’s a disaster.”

By Lissa Fox Strohecker. Originally published in the Maui News, May 11th, 2014 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

CRB spells trouble for Hawaii’s palms

At over 2.5" in length, the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle would seem hard to miss, yet it spends most of it's life in the crown of a palm tree. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

At over 2.5″ in length, the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle would seem hard to miss, yet it spends most of it’s life in the crown of a palm tree. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

At two and a half inches long and sporting large horns on the front of its head, the coconut rhinoceros beetle (CRB) is a remarkable-looking creature, but this lumbering giant of an insect is also a devastating pest of coconut and palm trees. Following its arrival on Palau in 1942, this critter from Southeast Asia quickly spread widely, wiping out 50 percent of the palms in the archipelago.

On December 23, 2013, during a routine survey of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, surveyors discovered the coconut rhinoceros beetle in palms on the base, marking it the first reported case of the insect in Hawai‘i.

Teams mobilized to survey the surrounding area and control the infestation. Based on the size of the population, the beetle may have been present for up to two years.

Populations of the beetle in its home range are kept in check by natural controls (predators, disease, and competition) but globalized shipping has transported the beetle throughout the Pacific; it has become a major palm pest, affecting the Philippines, the Republic of Palau, Fiji, American and Western Samoa, and most recently Guam. It has spread elsewhere in the world, hitching rides in the holds of aircraft, through nursery stock, cargo, mulch and sawdust.

The beetles leave boring holes in the crown of coconut palms. Photo courtesy of HDOA

The beetles leave boring holes in the crown of coconut palms. Photo courtesy of HDOA

When coconut rhinoceros beetle was detected in Guam in 2007, Hawai‘i officials grew concerned that the pest would make its way here, given the regular exchange of goods between the islands; however, it’s not known how the beetle arrived in Hawai‘i, nor where it came from.

Notable as they are in appearance, these beetles spend most of their adult stage out of sight, high in the tops of coconut trees. These monstrous beetles bore into the crowns of healthy palms, biting through unopened leaves and then feed on the sap produced by the injured plant.

Mature coconut trees can typically withstand feeding damage, but young plants under three years old often die. Over time, the mature trees are not replaced.

The population of these giant beetles grows quickly. An adult female beetle lays 70 to 140

As CRB bore through unfurled leaves the leave signs of damage that become apparent as the leaves unfurl.  But  this is not a definitive indication--other damage can leave V-shaped cuts. Photo courtesy of HDOA

As CRB bore through unfurled leaves the leave signs of damage that become apparent as the leaves unfurl. But this is not a definitive indication–other damage can leave V-shaped cuts. Photo courtesy of HDOA

eggs in its lifetime, depositing  the eggs in mulch heaps or soft logs where they hatch into large whitish larvae. Even the larvae reach an impressive size: between 2 3/8 inches to just over 4 inches long. These brown-headed larvae with bluish-grey tail tints feel “squishy” and crawl on their sides. They lack any marking on the underside of their mouth.

Larvae mature through several stages over the next 2 to 3 months and finally form a cocoon where they become adult beetles. The adults hatch out at night, flying a few hundred feet to a nearby tree

While coconuts are the preferred host, the beetles can live on other palms, bananas, sugar cane, agave, even ironwood and taro.

Based on current surveys, the infestation on Oahu seems limited, with all known sites under active control. However, with any flying insect, certainty about the extent of an infestation can be challenging. Coconut rhinoceros beetles have not been detected on Maui. The key to preventing their establishment–and protecting coconuts, native and landscape palms in Hawai‘i–is detecting their presence early. You can help by looking for boring holes in the palm crown and the distinctive V-shaped cut on the leaves. Other types of pests can cause cuts and boring, but if you see these symptoms, an expert can help check it out.

To learn more, visit the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture CRB update page at http://hdoa.hawaii.gov/pi/main/crb/. Submit pictures of damaged coconuts or palms via the Project Noah website. Look for the mission entitled “Help Save Hawai‘i’s Coconut Trees”- projectnoah.org/missions/18256600. You can also use, the online reporting tool at reportapest.org, or call the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture’s Pest Hotline at 643-PEST (7378) toll-free from any island.

By Lissa Fox Strohecker. Originally published in the Maui News, April 13th, 2014 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

The little fire ant-bad news for food crops

Liitle fire ant colony inside a macadamia nut

Little fire ants have many queens in the colony, and by moving a queen the population spreads to new areas. If you live in an area infested with little fire ant, don’t bring the pest to your new home. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

The little fire ant, Wasmannia auropunctata, is a pest with a deservedly nasty reputation. Alone, this wee ant is neither aggressive nor impressive, but with her sisters, living in a network of colonies stretching from tree-top to ground, she has a dramatic impact. Once established, little fire ants are more than a pest, they will put the kibosh on agriculture. Little fire ants have already shut down fruit orchards in the Hilo area and their establishment threatens agriculture throughout the state.

Little fire ants do not compete between colonies; rather, they cooperate, blanketing the ground and trees and outcompeting other ant species for food and resources. Other insects and animals may also be pushed out and end up abandoning highly-infested areas to the little fire ant.

As little fire ants find homes in bananas, citrus, rambutan, and coffee trees, farmers faced with new difficulties in harvesting their crops. Because the ants don’t hold on well to branches, scads of tree-dwelling ants rain down on workers become trapped in their clothing, and sting in self-defense.

fungus on coffee infested with little fire ants

Stinging ants raining down upon harvesters is enough of an obstacle for coffee infested with little fire ant, but additionally, yields are reduced because little fire ants protect aphids that support plant disease, like this fungus. Photo by Cas Vanderwoude

In the Galapagos, little fire ants have made harvesting coffee one of the most difficult ways to earn a living; coffee harvesters now command a higher wage than other agricultural workers to compensate them for the aggravation. Increased costs affect farm profitability; in several areas of the Galapagos, coffee plantations lay abandoned because of the little fire ant. In Kona, the famed coffee-growing area, and elsewhere in the state, most coffee is harvested by hand. The spread of LFA into coffee plantations will be a huge blow to an industry already struggling to address the coffee borer beetle, another invasive pest that threatens the coffee industry as it reduces yields.

Little fire ants threaten more than just coffee. In Brazil and Cameroon, little fire ants infest cacao farms. In Puerto Rico, Florida and New Caledonia, little fire ants have overrun citrus

Cacao and other tree crops are particularly susceptible to little fire ant infestations. Photo used by permission from  Cas Vanderwoude.

Cacao and other tree crops are particularly susceptible to little fire ant infestations. Photo used by permission from Cas Vanderwoude.

groves and in some areas practically blanket the ground.

The ants are causing havoc with other types of agriculture as well. Little fire ants cause blindness in animals and livestock, poultry, and pets in infested areas have a much higher incidence of blindness than do animals without LFA.

Controlling these ants is extremely difficult, especially for tree crops, as few pesticides are registered for use in trees and the bait must stick to branches long enough for the ants to find it. Existing control techniques rely on traditional pesticides; an effective organic method has yet to be developed.

As with any invasive species, preventing spread and establishment are the most cost-effective approaches.  Eradication is possible only if the population is small. Once established, these ants may be forever.  Little fire ants are widespread on the eastern side of Hawaii Island and beyond eradication in that area, but further spread throughout the state can be prevented. Help protect agriculture on Maui, as well as your own quality of life. Support efforts to prevent their movement between islands and quarantine and check any plants or soil you bring on to your property for little fire ants. Learn more at www.lfa-hawaii.org and www.littlefireants.com.

By Lissa Fox Strohecker. Originally published in the Maui News, May 13th, 2012 as part of the Kia‘i Moku Column from the Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Invasion: Little Fire Ants in Hawai’i [video & transcription]

[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.

http://www.LFA-Hawaii.org/

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.

http://www.LFA-Hawaii.org/