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Woman discovers little fire ants on plant purchased at Punahou Carnival

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Little fire ants deliver a painful sting when disturbed and pose a major threat to native species, including other insects and birds.

Bought any plants at the Punahou Carnival earlier this month? Better check them for little fire ants.

State officials from the agriculture department earlier this week confirmed that little fire ants were on a staghorn fern sold at the Punahou Carnival, and are asking all who purchased plants there to check for the invasive pests.

“The department is urging those who purchased plants at the carnival to do a simple bait test with some peanut butter to check their plants for the presence of little fire ants,” said Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, acting chairperson of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, in a news release. “It is also a good practice for all residents in uninfested areas to periodically check their properties for these invasive ants.”

According to state officials, a Kaimuki resident reported that she and her infant were stung while in bed last week. She then noticed tiny ants crawling on the nightstand next to her bed, where she had placed a staghorn fern purchased at the carnival on Feb. 2.

She collected samples and brought them to the agriculture department Monday.

State entomologists confirmed they were the invasive little fire ants, which deliver a painful sting when disturbed, and which pose a major threat to native species, including other insects and birds. The tiny ants, which measure 1/16th of an inch long, are pale orange in color. They can produce painful stings and large red welts, and may cause blindness in pets.

State officials bagged the staghorn fern, and froze it to destroy the ants, and checked other plants that the woman had purchased at the carnival. Fortunately, no other little fire ants were detected other than the nightstand area.

The agriculture department also contacted Punahou School officials and carnival coordinators were contacted and are fully cooperating with HDOA.

On Thursday afternoon, staff from the Hawaii Ant Lab conducted a survey for little fire ants in the areas where the plants were staged and sold, and none were detected.

“Punahou’s highest priority is the safety and well-being of our community,” said Robert Gelber, Director of Communications for Punahou Schools in a statement. “We are grateful for HDOA’s partnership in tracking down the source of the little fire ants and encourage the donor of this particular plant to reach out to Punahou or HDOA officials as soon as possible. We would also like to thank the many donors who contributed to this year’s carnival and appreciate their attention to this matter.”

Agriculture officials are also working with carnival coordinators to try to determine where the plant in question came from, and if other types of plants were also donated. They are particularly interested in tracking down the donor of the staghorn ferns so that staff can can do surveys for a little fire ant infestations where they originated from.

They are also surveying the spot where remaining plants from the sale are being maintained.

“The main factor in the spread of little fire ants is movement by humans,” said Kevin Hoffman, administrator of HDOA’s Plant Industry Division. “Learning from this particular situation, we hope that all coordinators of other plant sales establish a standard practice to test the plants prior to the sale.”

Anyone moving plants or outdoor material, especially from Hawaii island, where the little fire ants are widely established, should take extra measures to ensure they are not hitchhiking. It is also a good practice to quarantine any new plants and test them for little fire ants before moving them into your home or garden.

All residents on Kauai, Oahu and Maui counties are encouraged to use the peanut butter test to survey their properties.

Anyone who donated plants or has concerns about purchasing plants at the carnival may contact HDOA’s Plant Pest Control Branch at 973-9538. Reports of suspected invasive species can be reported to 643-PEST (7378).

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