Infestations of little fire ants on Maui over the years have been disclosed to the public when reported to them, officials with agencies who handle the cases said Thursday.
The question of whether infestations were being disclosed surfaced at the state Capitol on Wednesday when Oahu state Sen. Clayton Hee told fellow lawmakers on the Senate floor that he found it troubling that the state Department of Agriculture had not notified the public of a 3-year-old little fire ant infestation in Waimanalo, Oahu, according to a report in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
Hee's comment came from a meeting Tuesday with Department of Agriculture Director Scott Enright, the newspaper reported. The director later said that he told Hee and Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, that a small infestation was discovered a week ago in Waimanalo agricultural lots, and it was estimated that the ants had been there two to three years or longer, based on a preliminary inspection of the site.
This is a photo of a little fire ant worker
State Department of Agriculture photo
When asked if there were any publicly undisclosed infestations of little fire ants in Maui County, Agriculture Department spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi said: "Not that I know of."
Maui Invasive Species Committee Manager Teya Penniman said she knew that, on Oahu, there were a number of locations where little fire ants have been found.
"There are no known locations that have not been disclosed on Maui," she said.
On Dec. 31, the Agriculture Department announced the spread of the ants from the Big Island to Maui and Oahu. Officials said that the ants had been found in Big Island shipments of hapuu, or Hawaiian tree ferns, to the garden shops at Lowe's Home Improvement and Home Depot in Kahului. Officials tried to track down any customers who bought the ferns at those stores.
In October 2009, an infestation of the ants was discovered at a Waihee farm, but eradication efforts were reportedly successful.
Penniman said that the site of the Waimanalo infestation is between two plant nurseries, and she said it's "certainly possible, if not likely" that the ants came from one of those businesses. And now, anyone purchasing landscaping supplies or plants from nurseries on Oahu or the Big Island should beware of little fire ants, she said.
Anyone who has purchased landscaping materials for the past several years should test their yards to see if there are any little fire ants, Penniman said.
Residents can test for the presence of the ants by smearing a little peanut butter on a chopstick and putting it near the base of a live fern or other suspect plant. Leave it there for at least half an hour. By then, there should be a number of different ant species on it.
Put the chopstick in a zip-lock bag and put it in the freezer for a day. The freezing kills the ants.
Residents can then send the bags to state Agriculture Department officials to determine if any of the ants is a little fire ant, also known as Wasmannia auropunctata.
The phone number of the Agriculture Department's Plant Quarantine Branch in Kahului is 872-3848. The office is open weekdays from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Maui Invasive Species Committee phone number is 573-6472.
Officials have said there's no easy way for a layperson to tell the difference between little fire ants and other species that are orange.
The pale orange ant, a South America native, is only as large as a grain of sand. Two colonies with queens could be in a space as large as a golf ball. The ants' large numbers, the difficulty of detecting them and their aggressive behavior have led to them being described as the world's worst invasive species.
The ants have been on the Big Island since 1999. The ants inflict painful stings on humans, blind pets and pose a threat to the islands' visitor and agriculture industries.
Penniman advised against residents waiting until the ants begin stinging to test for their presence.
"The population doesn't explode," she said. "It takes a while for it to grow."
So while people may have a growing population in their yards, "they don't realize they have it," Penniman said.
In the case of the Waihee farm in 2009, a farmer discovered the infestation when the property owner put on sunglasses and was stung in the eye, she said.
By then, the property was "heavily infested" in a lot of different places, Penniman said.
The Department of Agriculture has eight inspectors on Maui and has been working to intercept ants arriving on shipments of garden materials from the Big Island. The most recent infested shipment was intercepted on Maui in early February, a department official said.
The Agriculture Department's Saneishi said that MISC workers were helping department employees on Maui by setting baits for ants and checking for results.
"We haven't had any new positives for Maui," she said.
An educational video and information about little fire ants can be found at lfa-hawaii.org.
For more information on the little fire ant and its history in Hawaii, visit hdoa.hawaii.gov/pi/files/2013/01/npa99-02-lfireant.pdf.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.