Little fire ants (LFA) have kept Hawaii officials busy in 2019. On Oahu, there were at least 4 detections of previously undiscovered infestations of LFA, while on Maui, the 14th detection on the island was announced in September.
Each of the new infestations was found thanks to the vigilance of residents reporting them to state agencies. The tiny ants are nearly invisible to the naked eye: smaller than the point of a pencil, their tiny orange-brown bodies blend easily into natural backgrounds. Often, people are lulled into complacency because if they donʻt “see” the ants, they believe LFA are not present. On the east side of Hawaii island, where the ants have been present for more than 20 years, this misconception can have troubling consequences for companion animals. Pet owners notice cloudy patches in their animalsʻ eyes, but do not think they have fire ants – only to be informed by their groomer or veterinarian that their poor dog or cat is covered in tiny stings!
Even on Hawaii island, residents outside of the Hilo/Puna area are sometimes unaware of the vigilance required to prevent and control LFA. Every district on Hawaii island has multiple active colonies of little fire ants, and no elevation or landscape has been shown to be immune to infestation by the tiny terrors. Most people know that little fire ants are commonly transported in potted plants, but they have also been reported in roofing tiles, port-a-potties, lunch coolers, gravel and road fill, camping equipment, furniture, vehicles, and more! Nearly any item which has been left sitting for an extended period of time in an infested area has the potential to be a transport mechanism for LFA. All such items should be treated with caution, quarantined, and tested for LFA before being brought onto your property.
The only way to know for sure if you have little fire ants is to test for them. Luckily, the procedure for this is simple, low-cost, and quick! Most of the items are probably in your kitchen right now: do you have chopsticks? Peanut butter? (Or Spam?!) A colorful marker? Then youʻre all set! Take your chopsticks (or something similar, like coffee stirrers or popsicle sticks) and paint them a bright color using the marker – this is just to help you find those sticks once you stick them around your yard. Smear a little peanut butter on one end, and then lay the stick flat wherever an ant might be lurking. LFA like vegetation and shady moist areas, so place your sticks on rock walls, in palm fronds, around ti plants, near debris piles, on the crook of citrus trees. Remember that they donʻt build underground nests and prefer to head up into trees, so youʻre not looking for a “mound”. Get yourself a cool drink, enjoy the tropical breeze, and then head back in 60 minutes to pick up your sticks. Place them in a plastic bag and freeze them, then mail/turn them in to your local ISC or HDOA office for identification. Thatʻs it!
Turn in every sample you find, even if you donʻt think itʻs LFA. We still need to know what ants are out there, and knowing that somebody tested an area and DIDNʻT find LFA is still really important. Every data point is critical. On Oahu, Maui, and Kauai, you can find a ready-to-go test kit with instructions at your local library or ISC office. Donʻt wait: for your peace of mind, and to protect your ohana (including furry members of the family) test for LFA during October!