LIHUE — Their sting leaves welts with pain that surpasses that of tropical fire ants. Their size is equivalent to the width of the edge of a penny. They’re fast movers, they have no predators and they live in the trees.
These tiny beasts are gnarly.
In fact, the best part about little fire ants may be that Kauai isn’t home to very many. But that’s actually even more motivation for Rachel Smith of the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, which has launched an educational campaign about the insects during Hawaii’s second annual Little Fire Ant Awareness month.
All month, Smith is presenting information at community organization meetings, schools and other venues.
“We’re revving up outreach this month and are focusing on raising awareness because we have our population contained,” Smith said.
“We hope we don’t have anymore populations on the island, but if we do, we want to find out about them and address them through this (campaign).”
Little fire ants were introduced to Hawaii in 1999 through the nursery industry and were brought in from Florida, where they are also invasive but are kept under control by other ant populations.
“There aren’t any predators here for the little fire ants,” Smith said. “Nothing will compete with them.”
The tiny insects were brought in with plants to both the Big Island and to Kauai, and what happened from that point dictated different endings for the developing little fire ant story on the two islands.
“On the Big Island they were distributed to different customers, but on Kauai they were transferred right into the ground at a residence on the North Shore,” Smith said. “Now, the Big Island has a really big problem with little fire ants, but here on Kauai, we’ve kept it contained.”
That one population on Kauai spread to a few surrounding properties, but cooperation between the county, the homeowners and KISC has kept the population contained.
Education is the key to keeping that population contained, and to preventing further introduction of the species, Smith said. Learning about the species is also the key to finding out if you are sharing your home with these tiny insects.
“They don’t leave big mounds everywhere because they live in the trees,” Smith said. “So that’s the big difference between these little fire ants and the tropical fire ants that are out at, say, Salt Pond.”
During her outreach events, Smith is distributing at-home test kits which help identify the presence of little fire ants. Results can be submitted to KISC or the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.
The kits come with everything needed except for peanut butter, which attracts the ants to the trap. The idea is to place a stick with peanut butter somewhere the ants will find it, then leave it there an hour.
Then, after an hour, you take the peanut butter covered stick, along with any ants that are on the stick, and put them in the kit’s plastic bag. Put the bag with the ant-covered stick into the freezer overnight to kill the ants, then submit the sample to the address on the bag.
“The ants will be all over the stick, so you want to pick up the stick and put it into the bag fast,” Smith said.
HDOA will contact whoever submits tests after the ants are identified.
Both entities suggest not disturbing or treating the area if little fire ants are suspected because it could spread them.
Test kits will also be available at Ha Coffee Bar in Lihue at a free movie night Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., where KISC is showing the Maui Invasive Species Committee’s documentary “Fire! Little Fire Ants in Hawaii.”
In addition, KISC is partnering with Anaina Hou to show the movie “Antz” on Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. KISC will show a condensed, seven-minute version of the MISC documentary before the feature presentation.
“It’s a really big problem right now on the Big Island, but we’ve kept our population contained for more than 10 years,” Smith said. “We’re in a good position.”