POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 13, 2014
Of all the ants in all the world, Hawaii had to get bitten by this one.
Hawaii lawmakers on Monday advanced a bill aiming to study and kill the little fire ant, a hard-stinging pipsqueak that threatens the state's economy and ecology.
House Bill 2469 would provide more than $500,000 toward coordinating efforts to corral and destroy the little fire ant. It includes money to pay for trained dogs to sniff out the tiny pests and for public outreach.
At 1/16th of an inch long, the copper-colored ant does not cut a formidable figure. But since it first landed on Hawaii island 15 years ago, possibly as a stowaway on a potted plant from Florida, the ant has spread on the Big Island and has popped up on Maui, Oahu and Kauai.
Of the perhaps 30,000 species of ants on Earth, only six are considered "really nasty," said Cas Vanderwoude, the research manager of the Hawaii Ant Lab at the University of Hawaii. Of those six, he said, the little fire ant poses the greatest potential threat to Hawaii.
"Our lifestyle and climate just suit this animal down to a T," he said. "If I was a little fire ant and wanted to go on vacation, I'd come to Hawaii."
The ants have proved onerous for several reasons, Vanderwoude said. They live in trees, where they infest crops and bite agricultural workers. They also live on the ground, where they attack people and pets, perhaps partially blinding cats and dogs by stinging their eyes. A single square foot of infested ground can contain 2,000 ants.
The ants travel between islands by hitching rides on crops and propagated plants. That threatens to undermine agricultural exchange among the islands and beyond. The ants also drive away insects, birds, lizards and mammals that prey on other pest insects, further harming crops.
When people discover infestations early enough, Vanderwoude said, officials can eradicate an entire colony using bait poisons that foraging ants carry back to the 90 percent of workers that don't leave the nest.
Teya Penniman, manager of the Maui Invasive Species Committee, called HB 2469 a start in addressing the problem. Her group is so concerned with the ant's appearance on Maui that it is looking to pay for trained ant-detecting dogs to come to the island, regardless of how the proposed legislation fares.
"Because the wheels of government turn slowly, I'm not willing to wait for us to get those dogs," she said.