Fire ants do exist on Kaua‘i

Only the less aggressive types

by Rachel Gehrlein – THE GARDEN ISLAND

There have been some reports on Kaua‘i recently regarding the growing infestation of Little Fire Ants and their relation to the much larger Red Imported Fire Ant.

Keren Gundersen of the Kaua‘i Invasive Species Committee is setting the record straight. An LFA population has been on Kaua‘i since 1999, after infested potted plants were transported from the Big Island, but the ants are undetectable due to treatment from the state.

“We conducted an island-wide survey of nurseries last year and found nothing,” Gundersen said.

Currently the invasive species committee is in the middle of re-surveying the same nurseries and has found no LFA. Gundersen thinks the LFA could be easily confused with the Tropical Fire Ant, which is quite common in Hawai‘i.

The LFA are tiny, about one-sixteenth of an inch long. They are pale orange in color and move very slowly. LFA workers and queens are all the same size.

LFA are not quick to sting when handled, but will sting if trapped in clothing or hair. The sting will produce large, painful red welts.

The tropical fire ant is longer than the LFA, about one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch long. Some of the workers will have larger, square-shaped heads.

Although there are differences between these pests, they are hard to distinguish with the naked eye. Gundersen recommends reporting the sighting of any red ants to the KISC or the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

Janelle Saneishi, public information officer for the HDOA, echoes Gundersen’s advice. Saneishi stresses the importance of people calling in and reporting LFA sightings, even if they’re not sure which ant is which.

“We want to know,” Saneishi said. “The sooner we find out about it, we can try to control and eradicate it.”

Both types of ants on Hawai‘i differ greatly from Red Imported Fire Ants — Solenopsis invicta — that have yet to reach Hawai‘i.

The Red Imported Fire Ant is an extremely aggressive stinging ant that has invaded more than 300 million acres across the Mainland, where it has become a significant public health hazard.

Although this ant is not yet known to occur in Hawai‘i, the risk of establishment of this species here is high due to recent expansion of the RIFA population westward into California, and beyond the Mainland U.S. into Australia, states the HDOA Web site.

RIFA are impossible to eradicate unless they are found when populations are still young and small. Therefore, early detection and reporting of incipient populations is critical to preventing establishment of this ant in Hawai‘i, states the Web site.

Though the RIFA has to make the bigger leap from the Mainland, LFA have the potential for inter-island transfer on several modes of transportation.

Although the Superferry isn’t scheduled for service to the Big Island until 2009 — one potential mode of transport — Saneishi admits LFA could be spread through air travel.

Because all potted plants traveling inter-island are required to be inspected by the HDOA, Faneishi thinks the spread of LFA in this way would be highly unlikely.

As for nurseries that ship plants and flowers inter-island, Faneishi says there is a voluntary system that most nurseries follow.

“If the nursery wants to be certified, we (HDOA) come out to inspect,” Saneishi said. “If clear, they get certified.”

Saneishi explained that this system allows certified nurseries to ship their products easily, while non-certified nurseries have to have every shipment inspected.

One nursery owner, who wished to remain unidentified, explained that she has gone through the certification process and everything she brings in has been inspected and sprayed.

If LFA are spotted, the HDOA and KISC recommend not applying toxic bait or insecticide until proper personnel can survey the infestation.

To report a LFA sighting, call 635-7378 or the HDOA in Lihu‘e at 274-3069.

• Rachel Gehrlein, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or


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