Maui News

Ant Lab Recognized for Stemming the Tide of Little Fire Ants in Hawai‘i

November 15, 2018, 9:48 AM HST
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Staff of the Hawaiʻi Ant Lab, recipients of the 2018 Conservation Innovation Award from the Hawaii Conservation Alliance. Left to right: Michelle Montgomery, Ersel Hensley, Cas Vanderwoude, Heather Forester, Jack Fields, Alison Wagner and Kiyoshi Adachi. (HAL staffers Matthew Sandrich and Mikey Bunyan not pictured). Photo courtesy: DLNR

The Hawaiʻi Ant Lab was awarded the 2018 Conservation Innovation Award by the Hawaiʻi Conservation Alliance for its work in battling Little Fire Ants in Hawaiʻi.

The Ant Lab is a collaboration of the University of Hawaiʻi’s Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit and the Hawaiʻi Department of Agriculture, and was established in response to the Little Fire Ant invasion, which was discovered on Hawaiʻi Island in the late 1990s.

State officials say “it could have been the beginning of the end for much of Hawaiʻi’s agriculture and our remaining native ecosystems.”

Twenty years later, the impacts of the ant have been “undeniably substantial,” according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Residents on the eastern side of Hawaiʻi Island have seen their homes and businesses invaded, tourists visiting beach parks have taken home unexpected welts from ant stings, and the ant has found its way in interisland cargo to Kauaʻi, Oʻahu and Maui.

The Ant Lab has produced several innovations to meet these challenges, with one of the first being a new gel bait that can be applied to tree canopies and other vertical structures. The effort has brought the world’s foremost experts on the species to the lab’s headquarters in Hilo.

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On Hawaiʻi Island, the lab works to assist farmers, nurserymen, and residents with Little Fire Ant management and to slow the spread of the ant as much as possible across the island. The lab also works with the Department of Agriculture to minimize the movement of ants in interisland cargo, and leads both prevention and control projects across the Pacific.

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On Maui, several small populations have been removed and the team is working with the Maui Invasive Species Committee to design a strategy that will hopefully eradicate a large infestation in Nāhiku.

On Kauaʻi, the Ant Lab and partners have rappelled over cliffs on the north shore to remove the sole infestation in Kalihiwai, which is on track for eradication.

On Oʻahu, the team partnered with agencies to remove ants from Mililani Mauka after a population was discovered in December 2013. The area was recently declared free of Little Fire Ant. In Waimanalo, the Ant Lab provides guidance and support to the Department of Agriculture and other partners to remove ants that may be moving in potted plants.

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“Little Fire Ants remain a serious concern for Hawaiʻi, and many residents and business owners are struggling with the impacts of this invasive species,” said Suzanne Case, Chairperson of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and co-chair of the Hawaiʻi Invasive Species Council. “Without the excellent work of the Hawaiʻi Ant Lab, it’s possible that we would have dense, intractable populations of Little Fire Ants on all of the main islands by now.”

Heather Forester, Extension Specialist at the Hawaiʻi Ant Lab said, “Little Fire Ants have the potential to impact everyone. Unfortunately, as humans we are more reactive than proactive, but if you focus your efforts on surveying your property and high-risk materials you bring onto your property, you have the chance to stop Little Fire Ants from establishing. For those of us who have Little Fire Ants, there is hope to manage this invasive; it just takes diligence and follow-through.”

State officials say the impacts of the Little Fire Ant are diverse and threaten our agriculture, tourism, environment, human health, and quality of life. On Hawaiʻi Island alone, the ant is estimated to cause approximately $174 million a year in damages. The innovations of the Hawaiʻi Ant Lab have helped Hawaiʻi maintain its goals of growing more local food and protect a tourism industry valued at over $15 billion annually.

October is “Spot the Ant, Stop the Ant” Month, during which residents are encouraged to test their yards and workplaces for the presence of Little Fire Ant. Visit www.StopTheAnt.org for directions on how to survey and for more information about Little Fire Ant prevention and control efforts on your island. For treatment advice, visit www.littlefireants.com.

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