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 www.lfa-hawaii.org.)

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.

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