Painful lessons

Chris D’Angelo

The Garden Island

LIHUE — Waimea resident Sarah Date, a retired school teacher, got a nasty surprise several months ago when she was bitten by a reddish-colored ant while pulling weeds in her backyard.

“I never got bitten before,” she said.

Weeks later, it happened again. Then, again.

“Sadly to say, stupid me, I’ve got bitten three times,” she said with a laugh.

Each time, Date developed a painful blister and had to visit the hospital.

“It gets swollen,” she said. “It hurts for about a day. And then it gets itchy.”

Worried her yard might be home to an infestation of little fire ants (LFA), Date contacted the state Department of Agriculture, which told her to collect a sample of the species using a chopstick covered in peanut butter.

DOA Insect Taxonomist Bernarr Kumashiro said Date submitted the specimen to the department’s Lihue office Nov. 18. It was then sent to Oahu and identified Nov. 21 not as LFA, but the larger, less-dangerous tropical fire ant (TFA).

People often confuse the two species.

Ray Kahaunaele, field operations supervisor at the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, said the tropical fire ant— Solenopsis geminate — is well established on all the major Hawaiian Islands.

“It has been here since the 1940s and is considered invasive,” he wrote in an email.

The main differences between the two is their size — TFA are three to four times larger than LFA — and the effects of the poison each possesses.

“LFA use a stinger instead of biting,” Kahaunaele wrote. “The toxin is a lot stronger in the LFA than the tropical. Both are a problem statewide, but the LFA is definitely of higher concern because of damage it can do to humans and animals.”

Physically, Kahaunaele said it is easy to distinguish the two. LFA are tiny — 1/16 of an inch, or the thickness of a penny, and slow-moving. TFA, on the other hand measure between 1/8 and 1/4 of an inch.

The confusion, he said, comes from people being bitten by tropicals who have a reaction and automatically assume it to be LFA because of recent news reports from around the state.

Date isn’t the only person in her neighborhood of Waimea Heights who’s been impacted by the common species. Karen Shibuya takes care of the yard of an elderly woman who lives across the street from Date.

“I was the first to get bit,” Shibuya said. “Very painful.”

Since discovering the ants on the neighbor’s property, Shibuya has been doing what she can to get rid of them. However, it’s been an uphill battle. And in the process, she’s been bitten four or five times.

“But I’m real careful now,” she said.

And so is Date. Today, she arms herself with boots and gloves when working in the yard.

“If it happens the first time, it’s the ant’s fault,” she joked. “If it happens twice, it’s your fault.”

Above all, Date wants people in and around Waimea to be aware of the situation and keep an eye out in their own yards for the pest, which she believes must have had a recent boom in its population.

And if ants do show up, she hopes others will be made aware of proper control methods.

Kahaunaele said KISC responds to all calls of stinging or biting ants. The vast majority of reports, however, turn out to be TFA, and the committee advises people on different methods available to control the species.

Proven agents include Talstar, ProBait and Amdro, according to Kahaunaele. And depending on the size of the infestation, several treatments could be required.

Kumashiro said tropical fire ants have been on Oahu since at least 1893, and that it is likely they’ve been on Kauai for at least several decades.

“If people do get bitten and stung by TFA, usually an anti-itch creme is all that is needed,” he wrote in an email. “People react differently, and if they are highly allergic and experience symptoms beyond what is normal, they should seek medical attention.”

Nests can be eliminated using the granular bait, Amdro, which can be purchased at a garden supply.

Kumashiro added that DOA has been conducting surveys since 2002 for detection of red imported fire ant (RIFA) — a close relative of TFA, but considered more destructive and harmful. So far, none have been detected in Hawaii, he said.

The little fire ant was first discovered on the Big Island in 1999. Since then, DOA has enacted quarantine regulations to prevent the shipment of potted plants infested with the species from the Big Island to other islands.

On Kauai, one infestation of LFA is known in the Kalihiwai area, under active control by KISC and HDOA.

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Chris D’Angelo can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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