LIHUE — To keep little fire ants from gaining a foothold on Kauai, experts are taking a page from the insects’ book and are calling for the community to work together.
As part of Little Fire Ant Awareness Month, the Kauai Invasive Species Committee has launched an online citizen science project called “Kauai Ant Map” — where more than 200 people have already joined in an effort to test the island for the ants.
Right now, those involved are students and teachers, said Tiffani Keanini, KISC project manager.
“The project involves schools islandwide, (and) the general public is also encouraged to participate and contribute data online,” Keanini said. “Testing is as easy as peanut butter on a stick.”
Peanut butter is irresistible bait for LFAs, she explained, and a thin smear of it coating a popsicle stick sets the trap. Put the coated sticks on the ground in moist areas near or in vegetation, and leave for an hour.
Then collect the sticks and freeze overnight.
Mail the frozen samples in for analysis. Samples can be dropped off or mailed to 4398 Pua Loke Street, Lihue, HI 96766, or to the Hawaii Ant Lab.
The test kits for LFAs are available for free throughout October at libraries in Princeville, Kapaa, Lihue, Hanapepe and Koloa. In addition to the libraries, kits are available year-round from KISC and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.
Once the test is performed, data is logged online at www.LFAKauai.org.
Little fire ants are known as “little hitchhikers,” according to KISC. They don’t have a foothold on Kauai — there’s only one known population in Kalihiwai and that’s “decreased to undetectable levels,” according to HDOA.
The population decrease is due to active eradication by KISC, HDOA and the Hawaii Ant Lab.
“The footprint of the infestation has been progressively reduced to undetectable levels as of our last survey,” Keanini said. “We continue to monitor the threat in the area.”
But, LFAs have a reputation for being able to hitch rides undetected on people and in cargo. The biggest transportation threat is cargo from Hawaii Island, according to HDOA.
“LFAs’ ability and habit of nesting in almost anything increases the risk of these ants being transported from infested areas,” said Janelle Saneishi, public information officer for HDOA.
The ants are most likely to travel on transported vegetation, especially with landscaping plants and cut flowers, but can stow inside vehicles and other cargo.
“The agricultural inspectors at our ports of entry are our vital first line of defense against these invaders,” Keanini said. “The second important line of defense is local awareness and vigilance by Kauai residents.”
Their bites are painful with side effects of swelling that can last for weeks, they pose a danger to pets’ health and wildlife, and the colonies can grow extremely large, she said.
“An entire LFA nest can travel inside a macademia nut shell, but once established they form super-colonies covering many square miles with tens of millions of ants per acre,” Keanini said. “Detecting them in the early stages is the only hope of eradication.”
Two important things the public can do: carefully inspect all purchased plants for tell-tale signs of tiny red ants and perform an LFA test at home every year.
“In short, the effects of uncontrolled LFA invasion would change life as we know it on Kauai,” Keanini said. “This is definitely not a species we want to see ever gain a foothold.”
More info: www.LFAkauai.org
Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or firstname.lastname@example.org.