February 15, 2005

Little Fire Ants Invade the Big Island

HILO, Hawaii (AP) -- It doesn't make as much noise as the coqui frog, but the little fire ant has invaded the Big Island, stinging fruit pickers and homeowners alike.

The little fire ant, a native of South America, has been spreading since it was first discovered in Hawaiian Paradise Park in 1999, state agriculture officials said.

The tiny light-brown ant is no bigger in length than the edge of a penny, but it can pack a painful punch - fire ant stings cause immediate dime-sized red welts on the skin that last at least several days followed by intense itching.

Colleen Schrandt, who grows rambutan, mangosteen and durian on her 15 acres of orchards at Papaikou, said she has trouble keeping workers because of the ants.

One fled screaming, "'I can't take it any more,'" she said.

"I can't keep workers because no one wants to be subjected to that," said Schrandt, who bought the property three years ago, unaware the ants were already there.

While commercial pesticides are available to fight fire ants, they can't be used in an orchard bearing edible fruit.

The fire ant, known scientifically as Wasmannia auropunctata, may have been brought to Hawaii from southern Florida, where the ants are common, said University of Hawaii entomologist Patrick Conant.

But their exact origin is unknown, he said.

The Big Island now has more than 40 known infestation sites in Hilo and Puna, said Kyle Onuma, a noxious weed specialist at the state Department of Agriculture. They have also been found at one site on Kauai, at Kalihiwai, said Janelle Saneishi, spokeswoman for the agriculture department.

As more residents become aware of fire ants, the number of infestation reports is expected to rise, Onuma said.

The little fire ant, unlike another invasive species - the coqui frog - is at least quiet.

"It's not like the coqui where we hear them," said Onuma. "Unless people get stung, there aren't many calls."

They are, however, potentially destructive.

The Invasive Species Specialists Group, part of the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union, calls the little fire ant "the greatest ant species threat in the Pacific."

In the Galapagos Islands, the ants reportedly eat the hatchlings of tortoises and attack the eyes of adult tortoises, the group said.

The ants, which are believed to travel on infested potted plants, wipe out other ant species and ground bugs in the area they colonize.

Conant said the ants are a problem on the Big Island, particularly with workers in orchards. "They're really getting stung. There's nothing they can do legally," he said.


On the Net:

Invasive Species Specialist Group: http://www.issg.org/