Friday, January 17, 2014

Beware of the Little Red Fire Ant!

Part of growing up in Hawaii is learning about invasive species. My elementary school classes always had a lesson about the dangers associated with releasing goldfish into local streams and ponds. We learned about the mongoose and how it wreaked havoc on birds here.

But the latest invasive animal has got me really scared. I saw "Invasion" this week. No, it's not a late-night sci-fi movie or cable television show. It's a 30-minute short produced by the Maui Invasive Species Committee and is an attempt to raise awareness about the latest threat to our islands.

It's scarier than any sci-fi movie, and it features real monsters. The creature, however, isn't a big lizard or scaly monster from the deep. It's an extremely small pest.

Beware of the little fire ant, folks. The ant itself is miniscule; just 1/16th of an inch - that's about the width of a penny. Don't be fooled though. This bug has wreaked havoc in just about every ecosystem it's ever come across.

The little red fire ant is a real big problem. These bugs bite. Their victims suffer from a very painful burning all over the skin. Folks describe it as a burning like fire all over their body. The bites are extremely itchy and leave red welts resembling a rash or poison ivy. It takes days for the itching, sores and redness to stop.
They're also really hard to eradicate. The ants form huge colonies with multiple queens. That means it's tough to figure out when they've truly been rooted out. The ants have spread all over the Pacific. They swarm plants and trees but are poor climbers.

An unwary animal or hiker who bumps into a tree or the unfortunate person standing beneath an infested branch moving in the breeze may soon come under a shower of aggressive, stinging ants that are nearly microscopic.

Agricultural workers and farmers are scared. The ants have a foothold on the Big Island and are popping up in ferns, orchids and fruit trees. They came onboard a shipment of palms in 1999 and have never left. Now they have started to spread to Kauai, Oahu and over in Waihee.

The tourist industry is nervous too. Those who live with the ants are covered in thick clothing from head to toe. Nobody wants their vacation on the beach ruined by swarming fire ants.

They've taken over islands all over the Pacific. Islands in Tahiti are completely infested. Biologists have noticed that in places with a large ant population, other animals suffer. Many believe that once bitten by the fire ants, indigenous animals as well as pet dogs and cats will scratch themselves to the point of infection and even blindness.

The ants go with commercial goods. Palms, plants and flowers are the prime distributors of the ants. Places like California are getting hip to our little fire ant problem and have started to crack down on our orchid and exotic flower exports. Interisland shipping is also at risk.

They can easily hitch a ride with a newly potted plant from the hardware store. In fact, last week this paper reported little fire ants infesting Hawaiian ferns sold at Lowe's and Home Depot.

The bad press and frightening possibilities that come with these ants have prompted the Legislature to consider bills that would fund inspectors and help build up defenses to head off an infestation.

The state Department of Agriculture is urging all of us to check our houseplants and yards. They say that the ant loves sweets - and peanut butter. To see if you have the little fire ant, set up a stick with some peanut butter near the suspected plant. In a few days, ants will swarm the stick. Then officials want us to put these sticks in the freezer and send them off to the Department of Agriculture for a positive identification that you've got little fire ants and not just, well, little ants. (You can call this hot line for more information: 643-PEST (7378) or visit

There are ways to get rid of them. Like any other kind of ant, they are not immune to poison, ant baits and barriers. But by that point, going outside may be a challenge. Don't forget to call the authorities about these invaders if you think they've come to your neighborhood.

Given all the destruction and problems they've caused, this pest needs a better, scarier name. Nobody can get too worked up about an ant - let alone a "little ant." (It's almost redundant.). A little fire ant sounds like a toy or the title to a children's book.

This pest needs something more fearful and ominous sounding. How about "the red menace?" Maybe "fire bugs?" Perhaps Cuba has a much more appropriate appellation for them: Satanica.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Little-Known Story of Catholic Discrimination in Hawaii

It goes without saying that Christmas is "celebrated" by people of all faiths these days. Sure, it is a Christian holiday, but the day off, televised parades, movies like "A Christmas Story," the gifts and the bombardment of holiday songs on the radio can be enjoyed (or endured) by all. Hawaii is no different, but it may have had a rocky start.
The first known Christmas celebration in Hawaii took place in 1786 - about 10 years after Capt. Cook came across these islands. A merchant ship in the fur trade, the Queen Charlotte, came to the islands and anchored at Waimea Bay on the leeward side of Kauai.
On Christmas Day, the captain ordered his crew to prepare a feast. The 33 souls aboard the brig enjoyed roasted pig, booze, coconut milk and pie (we're not sure what kind). The navigator held a toast to friends and families far away in England. Interestingly, this is the same ship and crew that moved on to the west coast of Canada, and one year later was credited for being the first Westerners to survey and christen a group of islands known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Christmas events in the islands after that one are lost to history. Perhaps an odd collection of shipwrecked crews or deserters and beachcombers gathered for a meal and good company to recall Christmas celebrations back home in America, South America or Europe.
Christianity officially came with the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1820. Maybe they brought Christmas festivities along with their religion. It would seem only natural at first to presume so. Perhaps they did recognize Christmas, but if they did, it was probably a most muted celebration. It is even more possible that they skipped the holiday altogether.
The missionaries from New England had puritanical descendants who despised Christmas. For them, the holiday had no place in scripture and it was nothing but an excuse to avoid working. The Puritans in Plymouth Colony went out of their way to build homes and worked extra hard on that day to show their contempt for what some referred to as "Foolstide."
This anti-Christmas streak continued into the 19th century. In New England, school was held on that day and any merrymaking students were disciplined harshly. Many Protestants still viewed the holiday as some kind of winter bacchanal more associated with pre-Christian solstice celebrations. They frowned upon the caroling (they considered it rabble rousing), the pagan traditions of bringing evergreen trees into the home, and the idleness on Christmas Day.
Roman Catholics, however, held a different view. For them, Christmas marked the start of a holy period of time. The Twelve Days of Christmas begin on the 25th of December, the traditional birthday of Jesus, and go on until Jan. 6, the Epiphany, when the three kings made their arrival.
The contrasting views of Christmas probably played out here in the islands. Catholic missionaries came to Hawaii in 1827 much to the chagrin of their Protestant counterparts. What made it even worse for the Yankees and the English was that the first Catholic fathers were French. These Christians had no qualms against Christmas, ornaments, sparkling raiment, nativity scenes, and enjoyed the holiday without a shred of compunction.
The largely Congregationalist missionaries were already established and held the ear of Hawaiian royalty. They managed to persuade their convert Queen Ka'ahumanu - the regent at the time, for Kamehameha III was still considered too young to rule - to institute a policy of suppression toward the Catholics.
On Christmas Eve in 1831, the French priests were forced to leave the islands. They headed for a small settlement in Southern California in what is now considered greater Los Angeles. The Catholic persecution continued. Hawaiian converts were beaten, whipped and imprisoned until they agreed to reject Catholic teachings.
The harsh policy toward Catholics eventually resulted in an international incident. The expelled French missionaries returned six years later with the power of the French military behind them. In 1839, a French warship came to Hawaii. Its captain warned Kamehameha III that if the policy toward Catholics continued, the islands must be ready to "incur the wrath of France" - no empty threat in those days.
The king relented. He declared the Catholic worshippers free, paid compensation for the expulsion of the priests, and even donated land for a church. They have remained in the islands since then. The Catholics were thus free to worship and, to paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge, keep Christmas in their own way.